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What if Kerry’s Peace Talks Fail?

Not many rosy optimists are predicting a breakthrough in the Middle East peace talks that started this week. The talks represent the fruit of the labors of an exceptionally determined Secretary of State John Kerry, but many people believe that the high-water mark for the talks will be the mere fact that they got started. ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Not many rosy optimists are predicting a breakthrough in the Middle East peace talks that started this week. The talks represent the fruit of the labors of an exceptionally determined Secretary of State John Kerry, but many people believe that the high-water mark for the talks will be the mere fact that they got started. Few are willing to bet very heavily on more tangible achievements, and I have yet to talk to an informed expert who thinks the chances of a major breakthrough are good.

Some pessimists would agree with Fareed Zakaria, who argued that even if a major breakthrough is unlikely, it is worth trying anyway. I am not so sure.

Yes, it makes sense to keep working for peace and to keep pushing Israelis and Palestinians to figure out political and pragmatic solutions to the issues that divide them. But that does not mean it makes sense to launch highly publicized, major peace talks of the sort that Kerry has just engineered. When Peace Talks with a capital P and T reach an impasse, the consequences can be quite dire for the parties involved. The waves of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism activities known as the Second Intifada were triggered by the breakdown of the last-ditch Peace Talks launched by President Bill Clinton to salvage the Oslo process.

Not many rosy optimists are predicting a breakthrough in the Middle East peace talks that started this week. The talks represent the fruit of the labors of an exceptionally determined Secretary of State John Kerry, but many people believe that the high-water mark for the talks will be the mere fact that they got started. Few are willing to bet very heavily on more tangible achievements, and I have yet to talk to an informed expert who thinks the chances of a major breakthrough are good.

Some pessimists would agree with Fareed Zakaria, who argued that even if a major breakthrough is unlikely, it is worth trying anyway. I am not so sure.

Yes, it makes sense to keep working for peace and to keep pushing Israelis and Palestinians to figure out political and pragmatic solutions to the issues that divide them. But that does not mean it makes sense to launch highly publicized, major peace talks of the sort that Kerry has just engineered. When Peace Talks with a capital P and T reach an impasse, the consequences can be quite dire for the parties involved. The waves of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism activities known as the Second Intifada were triggered by the breakdown of the last-ditch Peace Talks launched by President Bill Clinton to salvage the Oslo process.

To be sure, the failure of the major effort launched by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the end of Bush’s tenure did not lead to a comparable spike in violence, nor did the collapse of the stillborn initiative launched by President Barack Obama at the outset of his tenure. But material conditions on the ground worsened in other respects, and the consequent loss in trust is a major factor driving pessimism this time around. Success begets success, but failure begets failure.

This raises the question: How well prepared are the three actors if (when?) the talks reach an impasse? This is a question I posed in various forms to a variety of experts in Israel last week. My interpretation of the bottom line of the myriad answers I got back is this: Should talks fail, the Palestinians have a plan that suits their short-term interests well, the Israelis less so, and no one seems confident the United States is ready for this possibility. The New York Times reaches a similar conclusion in its own report.

The Palestinian plan is simple. If talks fail, they will demand immediate entry as a full member in all the relevant international organizations, including, ominously, the International Criminal Court. While this would only weaken support for the two-state solution among Israelis, it will be seen as a symbolic victory of sorts for the Palestinians. And if the Palestinians hold their own in the post-collapse battle of rhetorical recriminations, they have a decent shot of securing these consolation prizes, given the balance of global opinion.

The Israeli plan is less clear. If talks fail, they will seek to convince a skeptical global community that the Palestinians deserve the lion’s share of the blame. They will react to the Palestinian effort to gain ersatz statehood in international fora, and they will be poised to react to an outbreak of another intifada. But they will be reacting rather than acting, and there do not seem to be many consolation prizes available to Israel that would compare in symbolic terms to what are on offer for the Palestinians.

It is hard to see what the U.S. plan is. I hope the lack of obviously good alternatives has not led the administration to adopt the "failure is not an option" mantra that inhibits good strategic and contingency planning. If these talks fail, it will be a grave blow to America’s standing in the region, a standing that has already eroded substantially and proportionally to the rising tide of war in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq — and to the spread of instability elsewhere. The United States needs to be prepared for that possibility.

Perhaps the administration is prepared. I asked a well-informed Israeli what could have been the inducement Obama offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get him to join the talks at such a high price (unpopular prisoner releases) and with such a low prospect for success. He speculated that perhaps Netanyahu received assurances about how the United States would respond should the talks fail. It is hard to know what such assurances could be, and given the delicacy of the situation, I am not suggesting for a moment that the administration should reveal them publicly. I am suggesting that there is, alas, a good chance that we will find out what those assurances are.

At the moment, it is hard to discern what the American plan for failure is. I hope I am wrong, but we may find out just how good the American contingency plan for the breakdown of the peace talks is.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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