In my post yesterday, I promised to write a little more about "reevaluation", the American threat that was pulled from the attic in response to the recent crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The basic idea behind “reevaluation” – I wrote – "is letting the talks collapse and waiting for the parties to come back to their senses (or not)". If this reminds you of Secretary James Baker's famous call-us-when-you're-serious threat, and of Secretary Kissinger's (and President Ford's) threat of reevaluation in the mid-Seventies, you are not alone. Two days ago, I witnessed a debate between two Israeli officials about the new American position that included references to these two historic events. The bottom line was that no, there is no real resemblance. There’s no resemblance for many reasons – one of which is that both Kissinger and Baker were taken much more seriously than Kerry. They were powerful, manipulative, and sophisticated Secretaries of State, while Kerry, thus far, has failed to deliver, and not just with the peace process.
"There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend, if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward", Kerry said, and sent his emissaries to keep the talks going. "He's willing to walk away," a senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal. In fact, it was the White House telling Kerry that it was time for him to be willing to walk away.
Walking away sounds good – it sounds like a neutral step of quiet withdrawal. You do your thing, we'll do ours. But this is a mirage – there is no neutral, balanced, consequence-free walking away. Thus, "reevaluation" is not a plan, it is a threat that needs to be decoded in order to understand its meaning. It could mean: the US is no longer going to spend time on the peace process, and is no longer going to spend money on the Palestinians, and is no longer going to interfere with Israeli policies that will make a future Palestinian state even less likely. It could also mean that the US is no longer going to block attempts by the Palestinians to rally international organizations against Israel, and is no longer going to shield Israel from punishment by other countries for the occupation, and is no longer going to disrupt an attempt by the Europeans to solve the conflict in a way more in line with their own set of beliefs and policies.
In other words: reevaluation could be very troubling for the Palestinians – but it could be very troubling for Israel as well. Reevaluation is not a decision to no longer have a policy that will have impact on the parties, it is a decision to have a different policy that will impact the parties in a different way than the current policy of sponsoring, and pressuring the sides into, negotiations.
Imagine the following scenario: The US "reevaluates" and withdraws – or "pivots" to someplace else, as it used to want to. The Europeans propose a Security Council resolution that imposes sanctions on Israel if it does not evacuate settlements within a certain time frame. Does the US block the resolution (because it has reevaluated the need and the chance for successful negotiations) and no longer see the Palestinian cause as a priority – or does it refrain from vetoing it because it has no interest in this matter and no longer needs to veto resolutions that are disruptive for negotiations?
A likely scenario? Not immediately, but sooner or later such dilemmas are going to present themselves to the policy makers in Washington. And they are going to have to decide if the reevaluated policy is really a policy of punishing Israel for the failure of the talks, or maybe a policy of punishing the Palestinians. In both previous cases of reevaluation – Kissinger and Baker – the pressure was clearly on Israel. In this case, it is not yet clear where the US is going, but consider the following parameters that might give Israel some reason for calm:
The US has not yet picked a side in the Israeli-Palestinian blame-game (UPDATE: or maybe it just did? Look at Kerry's statements from after this article was already posted). The Americans haven’t done that because they still hope to salvage the negotiations, but also because in this case they are furious with both sides. Putting the burden on Israel alone might not work for them this time – not when the Palestinians clearly defied the Americans’ requests.
The US is entering the crucial pre-election period. This means that political pressure can play a role and dictate caution. True, the Obama administration is not up for reelection, but members of Congress can still tell the White house that this isn't the right time to pick an unnecessary fight over a minor issue with Israel and trouble the water in their districts.
The US does not want Israel to interfere with its policy in Iran. If Obama and Kerry choose to blame Israel for the failure of the talks, they will have much less leverage with Netanyahu, and their ability to claim that Israel should trust them on Iran is going to be damaged. Iran is more important to Obama than the Palestinian track in which the White House had little faith to begin with.
Does this mean that Israel has nothing to worry about? Not really. The Obama administration has proved time and again that its appetite for battling Netanyahu tends to exceed expectations. It has also proved that the temptation of the peace process is hard for it to resist. Thus, the reevaluation should be taken with a grain of salt for two reasons. The first is because the US doesn't really want to withdraw its investment in this issue. The second is because it can't really withdraw, not without having to first pick a side.