Dead on Arrival

Why is John Kerry shuttling around trying to kick-start a Middle East peace process that no one wants?


TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a four-day Mideast peace push on Sunday, June 30, his latest effort in the most sustained U.S. bid at reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks in half a decade. On his fifth visit to the region since taking office in February, America’s top diplomat shuttled between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman for meetings that sometimes ran into the wee hours of the morning.

Such a flurry of diplomatic action has led some to believe a breakthrough could be nigh. Yet in Israel, Kerry’s dogged do-goodery was met primarily with bemusement.

“One wonders why the secretary of state would, as a first step in his foreign policy, embark on a very complicated issue that seems to many here to be unsolvable,” said Zvi Rafiah, a former diplomat closely involved with U.S.-Israel relations for four decades. “Many Israelis are asking why he would choose to stake his prestige on this issue.… If he succeeds, most Israelis would say, ‘God bless.’ But the chances he succeeds where his colleagues have failed are dim.”

If Israelis are confused by Kerry’s efforts, they’re also not paying much attention. On Monday, the three networks’ evening newscasts — which still set the tone for the national discourse here — all led with Egypt’s mass anti-government protests. In the same day’s Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s highest-selling daily, the first four pages were devoted to Egypt and the next 14 to internal affairs. Kerry’s photo appeared only on page 18, in a midsized item titled, “Leaving empty-handed.”

Maariv, another mass-market daily, ran a nearly identical headline: Kerry was “leaving empty-handed after 72 hours of frantic shuttling.” As conservative columnist Amnon Lord opinionated: “This isn’t a [peace] process aimed at historic achievements — forget about it. This is a process for the U.S. government to appear as if it’s doing something in the Middle East.”

Lord is a former peacenik who changed his spots after the wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks by both Hamas and Fatah that followed the short-lived optimism of the 1993 Oslo Accords and became known as the Second Intifada. His right turn was sharper than most, but it’s representative of a widespread skepticism across the Israeli mainstream over whether peace with the Palestinians is achievable — now or ever.

It’s not just right-wingers who predict Kerry’s campaign is doomed. Barak Ravid of the progressive daily Haaretz dubbed the secretary of state “naive” and “ham-handed” for his efforts. His colleague Ari Shavit concluded bluntly that there was “no serious Israeli or Palestinian who thinks that the Kerry approach would work.”

It does seem an odd time to take another stab at the peace process. Both the United States and Israel face a daunting array of challenges in the Middle East. In Iran, the centrifuges still spin. Along Israel’s border with Syria, a two-year civil war has cost upwards of 100,000 lives, drawn in jihadists from far and wide, and sent a half-million refugees into neighboring Jordan. Israel’s other borders offer scant consolation — Hezbollah and Hamas plot attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, while Egypt grapples with some of the largest protests in its history.

Israel’s own house is also divided, and citizens are hitting the streets to voice their own economic grievances. In 2011, hundreds of thousands demonstrated nationwide against the rising cost of living. This year, smaller rallies picketed the finance minister’s home to protest austerity plans.

Today, the peace process simply ranks low on Israelis’ list of priorities. The most recent Peace Index — a monthly survey conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute — found Israelis consider the widening socioeconomic gap between rich and poor, the Iranian threat, public safety, and the deficit to be their country’s biggest problems. Talks with the Palestinians came in fifth, with just 10 percent saying it ought to top the government’s to-do list.

Past failures to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians have turned Israelis into a cynical lot. Many here point to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s failure to respond to a reasonable offer by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and to a similar failure by Abbas’s predecessor, Yasir Arafat, at the landmark Camp David summit eight years prior, as signs that the Palestinian leadership is unwilling to sign a conflict-ending agreement. They point to the Palestinians’ own infighting: Abbas’s Fatah movement wields authority only in the West Bank and not in Gaza, where Hamas, which has denounced Kerry’s peace train as a “catastrophe,” holds sway. And they note the steady diet of anti-Semitic hatred fomented by Palestinian Authority media and schools.

Yet mixed with despair is also the widespread recognition that there are few alternatives to a two-state solution.

“It’s truly remarkable how the secretary of state of the United States is investing so much time and energy into the region,” said Yossi Shain, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations who teaches at Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University.

“Several presidents have invested heavily in the peace process — notably Bill Clinton and also George W. Bush — and have been burned. Presidents should not invest all their energies into the issue, as important as it may be,” Shain said. “But there’s a paradox: Presidents can’t be seen to be disengaged.… It’s a very difficult line to walk.”

For its part, the Palestinian Authority sums up the reason for the impasse in one word: settlements. Palestinian officials highlight the traditionally pro-settlement policies of the Likud, now the Knesset’s most powerful faction, and this week’s party elections that brought gains to its more hard-line wing, as proof that it’s Israel that’s holding up a deal.

In March, Haaretz revealed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to quietly refreeze building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a gesture to Kerry as he sought to revive talks. That move, however, was to last only through the end of June. On Sunday, June 30, hours before the secretary of state left Jerusalem, local media publicized Housing Ministry plans to build additional homes in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem that Palestinians say impedes travel between Arab parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Yet settlements are just one of a handful of core issues on which Israeli and Palestinian officials still seem miles apart. There is the Palestinians’ demand for a “right of return” for millions of refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, for example, to which no elected Israeli government will ever agree. There are the questions of how to divide up scarce water resources, the status of Jerusalem, and how to assuage Israeli concerns that a Palestinian state will serve as a launching pad for more acts of terrorism.

It’s unclear how Kerry intends to address these issues, which have bedeviled peace processors more experienced than he for decades. Jordanian media have reported he is seeking to organize a four-way peace summit in that country, and the secretary himself has hinted that he envisions a pathway to peace that could “surprise people.”

But so far, Kerry’s efforts have stumbled over the same, predictable obstacles that have lain in the way of a peace deal for decades. “We look at it from two perspectives. On one hand, we say, ‘God bless you, Mr. Secretary; we wish you luck,'” said Rafiah, the ex-diplomat. “On the other, we wonder, ‘Where are you running so fast?’ The whole Middle East is boiling, and you’re concentrating on Israeli-Palestinian talks that will have no impact on the killings in Syria, Iran, or the crisis in Egypt. We’re a bit bewildered, but we wish you well.”

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