You have to hand it to John Kerry. In taking on the task of getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks underway again, he has taken on the most thankless of tasks. He’s already being ridiculed for it across the punditry universe.On the right, the chatterers say that Kerry will sell Israel’s interests down the river to pursue this pipe dream of Middle East peace while Syria and Egypt burn.
On the left, these new peace talks are “doomed” because we’re not being tough enough on Israel.
In the center, even among foreign policy veterans who have deep experience in reporting or working in Israel and Palestine, such as Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center or Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, say Kerry is on a “fool’s errand,” and all he is doing is giving false hope and when it fails the Middle East will descend into further instability.
And finally, from the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu we hear the shopworn speeches of diversion, which go something like this: No the real problem is not the Palestinians, it’s Iran. No, don’t look at this smelly mess in your backyard that is driving the neighbors crazy, look at this shiny red flashing ball 1,000 miles away that one day might be a threat.
There’s a tiny bit of truth in all of these critiques, but most of it is hogwash. Yes, you can make an excellent argument that President Obama’s hands off policies on Egypt and Syria have not worked out so well. And that these two crises may be higher on the importance scale of Middle East tasks.
But John Kerry isn’t being given a lot of room to maneuver on those two crises by the White House, whose caution is supported by opinion polls that say Americans do not want to get involved in another Middle East war.
The Iranian issue is a red herring. The new president of Iran is indeed more moderate than his predecessor despite what some Israelis want us to believe. He and the White House have been trading background signals of willingness to talk for several weeks now. This may be the most promising development in U.S. Iranian relations in the past 20 years. To start making new threats against Iran, as some Republicans and some Israelis are urging, when the Iranian government is showing its first signs of moderation, would be diplomatic suicide.
Of course we shouldn’t be Pollyannish about Iran, but neither should we be antagonistic just when a new president is taking office.
The problem of the Palestinians is not a sideshow. It is a festering problem that gets harder to solve the longer it goes on. And it is one that virtually all sides know in their hearts is solvable. The outlines of a two-state solution, with land swaps for Palestine in trade for Israeli settlements, an Arab League endorsement of peace and security for Israel, and some international guarantees for Jerusalem and holy sites are well known. Sure the details are hard, but that’s what negotiations are about.
Yes, the United States will have to lean hard on Israel to make peace, just as Kerry will have to pressure the Palestinians too. But does anyone really think John Kerry or Barack Obama will sell Israel’s interests down the river? Politically it is not tenable.
The argument that may be the most annoying, from the centrists, is that restarting peace talks could raise expectations in the Middle East, and lead to crushing violence and a new intifada if they fail. These arguments are coming from the same people who said Obama and Hillary Clinton were pushing too hard on the Israelis to stop settlements in the early part of the president’s first term, or later in his term that Obama and Clinton weren’t doing enough to push the peace process. Oy.
Of course the likelihood that Kerry will fail is high. Everyone knows that. But you have to admire his pluck in taking it on. I agree with what Kerry said on July 17: “The easiest bet among Middle East prognosticators has always been on predicting impasse.”
What Kerry is doing is the ultimate human endeavor: taking on an impossible task knowing full well the dangers along the way, the high cost if it fails, and the cost to his own legacy and reputation if he falls short.
John Kerry is known to be an admirer and student of fellow Bay Stater, John F. Kennedy. Perhaps Kerry had Kennedy’s “go to the moon” speech from September 1962 in mind when he began this push for new Israeli-Palestinian talks: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Trying again for Middle East peace may indeed be human folly. But not to try again for peace would be inhuman.