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Washington Postcard: Thinking about Israel, Palestine and Kerry’s Legacy

by Shmuel Rosner

February 24, 2014 | 3:31 am

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Dec. 5. Photo by Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

There was an interesting article the other day in the Wall Street Journal by Walter Russell Mead. “Both the EU and the U.S. made a historic blunder by underestimating Russia's reaction to the Ukrainian trade agreement”, he wrote. While “neither the American policy makers nor the European ones who stumbled into this bear trap are stupid”, he continued, there is a problem with their thinking “that has haunted Western statesmanship since 1989”: They believe that the end of the Cold War means the end of geopolitics.

I read the article on the Washington metro on my way to a couple of meetings downtown. And as I was reading, I thought about Secretary of State John Kerry and his effort to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. A possibly “obsessive” yet admirable effort, performed with intensity and determination.

Kerry’s chances for success are not great, as Shlomo Avineri pointedly explained last week. Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, he wrote, “is an excellent partner for talks - as long as they are talks designed to lead Israel to make more and more concessions, and to put them in writing. Then, on one pretext or another, he is unwilling to sign and brings the negotiations to a halt”. Thus, it is almost a certainty that Kerry will produce a document, two-three weeks from now, following Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to the White House next week. That the two sides – Israel and the Palestinian Authority - will eventually accept the document as a basis for further negotiations is also very likely (in regards to Israel, I’d say a certainty again). But it is not very likely that this document and the ensuing negotiations will produce a final agreement.

Yet why not try?

Ukraine might be one answer to the “why not?” question. Syria and Iran might be an answer too. In short - here we return to the point made in the Russell Mead analysis of how the US failed to respond properly to the moves made by Vladimir Putin in the Ukrainian crisis – because of their tendency not to think about geopolitics.

Dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a noble enterprise, it really is. But strategically, from an American viewpoint, it is wasting time on a relatively minor issue. More civilians were killed in the Ukraine in the last seven days than in Israel-Palestine (the West Bank) in the last seven years. More civilians are killed in Syria every month than in Israel-Palestine in the last ten years. So saving lives can’t be the motivation for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And neither can strategic considerations be the reason. True, Kerry correctly points to the fact that world leaders always push the US to “do something” about this conflict. So clearly, some leaders see this as an urgent enterprise. Yet it is not inconceivable that these are the same leaders who have replaced strategic thinking with what Russell Mead calls diplomacy “about order and norms” – leaders who lack in the setting of priorities. And they go to Kerry with such requests about Israel and Palestine because the US, for two and a half decades, was the greatest promoter of peace processing. The US was the one selling the world the idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace as an urgent and high priority matter, and it is now the one using the fact the world bought this idea to explain why it is even more urgent.

The fact remains: Israeli-Palestinian peace can be of great value and interest to Israelis and Palestinians. It is of little consequence to the rest of the world. The rest of the world needs an interventionist America where it counts, as Niall Ferguson explained in his own WSJ article (and I hope two WSJ links in one post won’t make it totally unacceptable to liberal readers). “Balance without an enforcer is almost inconceivable”, he writes. And hence, hoping for “an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran”, as President Obama did in his New Yorker interview, has no basis in reality. “The trouble with his analysis”, Ferguson writes, “is that it does not explain why any of the interested parties should sign up for his balancing act”. In fact, Ferguson is kinder with the president than most of the knowledgeable Washington players I met with on Friday, who believe that the president isn't playing for “equilibrium” and that he is simply running the clock out.

So when I was thinking about John Kerry’s efforts, I wondered whether the achievement is worth the trouble. I wondered if Kerry – in the very unlikely case of success – might discover that he has won the wrong game, that he has won one in the minor league while losing in the major league.

Case in point: the Jimmy Carter administration.

The Carter administration should be credited with the greatest achievement of Israeli-Arab peace making thus far – the Israel-Egypt peace accords. President Carter himself deserves praise for his determination during the talks, for his personal involvement in the fine details of the accords, for his ability to nudge the parties at moments of crisis toward resolution. Carter was also – putting Israel and Egypt aside – a mediocre President. He made some impression abroad; Israel-Egypt and the Panama Canal are the notable cases. But when the stakes were high, in Afghanistan and even more so in Iran, he failed to respond properly. “Lacking in leadership, ineffective in dealing with Congress, incapable of defending America's honor abroad, and uncertain about its purpose, priorities and sense of direction", wrote Burton Kaufman in The Presidency of James Earl Carter Jr.

Can anyone argue that Carter was wrong to pursue the Israel-Egypt peace process? Not in a million years. Israel and Egypt seemed at the time like the rivals that hold the key to a stable Middle East. In the 1973 War they were enemies that brought the world to the verge of superpower confrontation. Their conflict was dangerous not just for them, it was detrimental to US interests in the region and consequential for the US-USSR power struggle. So Carter was clearly right to attempt to put an end to Israeli-Egyptian hostilities. Nevertheless – and even though he succeeded in achieving a peace that still holds thirty-five years later – Carter was hardly a foreign policy success.

That is because, much like President Obama, Carter came to office wanting to reduce the involvement, the risk, and, most importantly, the cost of American actions around the globe. But when involvement is supposed to be reduced, setting the right priorities becomes crucially important. Carter, mired in the details of the Israeli-Egyptian peace process, neglected to notice developments more important from an American viewpoint. Moreover, as Douglas Brinkley wrote in The Unfinished Presidency, “in essence, the Carter administration had championed a post-cold-war foreign policy before the cold war was over”. That is, it lacked geostrategic planning. He greatly benefitted Israel with his involvement in the Egypt peace process, but weakened the US by investing in the right thing the wrong level of effort.

Had he not put in such effort, would the peace accords have come to fruition? That's a question which no one can answer. Clearly, both Israel and Egypt were ready at the time for peace, both were tired with war, and both needed some nudging to get to the signing ceremony. So, again, Israel should be thankful to Carter for making such an effort. On the same token, it should also be thankful to Kerry for taking the time and for making the effort. All the more so if Kerry succeeds.

Still, the question lingers: if Kerry succeeds in Israel-Palestine yet fails in Syria, Iran, the Ukraine and other places, would it make him a successful and a consequential Secretary of State, or one that has made his mark in the wrong place at the wrong time? With reluctance, I must admit that I’m unconvinced that Kerry’s effort is the proper move for him at this time.

Reluctance – as every hint of doubt related to Kerry’s effort at this time is instantly interpreted as a sign of opposition to peace, and opposing peace is not a healthy position.

Unconvinced – because Israel-Palestine is hardly as consequential as Israel-Egypt; because Israel and Palestine are hardly as ready for peace as Israel and Egypt were at the time; because other issues seem much more pressing and more vital for the success and effectiveness of US foreign policy; and because while having a successful US is, of course, first and foremost an American interest, it is also an Israeli one.

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