Stay Home and Stay Out of This Fight

Why John Kerry has no business trying to make peace between Israel and Gaza right now.


I don’t know whether the lights are burning late at Foggy Bottom or not. I suspect they are as my former colleagues there try to figure out what — if anything — the United States should do about the recent surge of terror and violence in the not-so Holy Land. I do know that diplomats, particularly those who have become addicted to the peace process, can’t help themselves. You can bet that there are memos to the secretary of state with titles like "Defusing Israeli-Palestinian Tensions" or "How to Use the Current Crisis to Advance the Peace Process."

When I was working on this issue, we usually had two speeds when it came to these sorts of violent eruptions: fast and faster. The clarion call — usually without thinking things through — was almost always "do something." What exactly that was we usually figured out after we got started. I remember in the fall of 1996 after Benjamin Netanyahu — in his first incarnation as prime minister — opened up the Hasmonean tunnel in Jerusalem, an action that ultimately lead to Palestinian and Israeli security services shooting at one another. We ended up in Israel and the West Bank for almost three months straight, eventually negotiating the Hebron Accords in February 1997.

But those were the good old days. That was before Hamas ruled Gaza and had serious high-trajectory weapons; before the idea of interim accords had been discredited; before the second intifada; and when we had a Palestine Liberation Organization leader in Yasir Arafat, who actually had the power to make decisions, even if he was the exasperator-in-chief. That was when Arab leaders like Jordan’s King Hussein and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak actually helped us. Most important of all, it was at a time when both Netanyahu and Arafat wanted and needed our help, however loathe they were to admit it.

John McCain — a man I admire and respect — recently called on John Kerry to do something about the current violence. And by that he meant that Kerry should travel to Israel and "initiate a dialogue" between the two sides. I don’t think that’s right, at least not yet.

The problem at the moment is not between Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi; it’s between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. And trying to get in the middle of that one would both weaken Abbas, give phony unity a boost and likely alienate the Israelis. The last thing Washington should we doing right now is bailing out Hamas, let alone engaging it directly or through cut-outs. Egypt and Israel both known how to negotiate cease-fires with Hamas. And both understand how to restore calm, if Hamas is willing.

And that’s the issue now. What does Hamas want and what kind of game is it playing? Do they need to let the rockets and airstrikes continue for several days to demonstrate their resolve against Israel and to preempt pressure from smaller groups like Islamic Jihad? Having already been blamed and implicated in the murders of the three Israeli teens, are they already in the dock and don’t care if the situation escalates? Or perhaps Hamas believes that the revenge killing of the Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, has so angered the Palestinian public, that they’re in a confrontational mood and can further erode Abbas’s relevance with the Palestinian street? Either way, with the situation so murky, Kerry should keep his powder dry.

Second, there’s not much America can do regarding the killings of the Israeli and Palestinian kids. This is a problem for the parties. Abbas needs to do everything in his power to assist in the manhunt for the murderers of the three teens. And Israel needs to bring the full power of the state to find those responsible and convict them with sentences befitting the horrific nature of the crime. Both need to continue to cooperate on security and keep their respective streets as quiet as they can. John Kerry inserting himself into this mix would only politicize the problem further.

Finally, there is a real danger that U.S. credibility — already badly undermined by the failure of the Kerry effort — could be harmed even more by yet another failed attempt at making peace. The last thing needs is to be hanging around Israel, unable to stop either Hamas rockets or Israeli airstrikes. And right now, it goes without saying that talking about political issues related to the peace negotiations makes no sense at all.

Washington should be encouraging restraint, maintaining contact with leaders on both sides, and encouraging the Egyptians to see if they can’t broker a cease-fire in Gaza. If I were John Kerry, I’d go to Israel now under only one condition. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas called, asked for my help, and made clear they were prepared to deal seriously with the peace process when this round calms down. Otherwise, Mr. Secretary, stay home. You have better and more productive things to do with your time.

Aaron David​ Miller is a geoeconomic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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