Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Obsessive Are the Peacemakers

by Steven A. Cook
February 11, 2013

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the press (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).


Lost in all the reporting and blogging about President Obama’s planned March visit to Israel were the first phone calls his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, made even before entering office.  Even before figuring out how to use his new email, learning the way to the cafeteria, and filling out “Emergency Contact” forms, Secretary Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres and president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.  Perhaps America’s new chief diplomat was merely extending a courtesy to important Middle East allies or maybe he was giving them a heads-up that the White House was going to announce the president’s visit to Israel and the West Bank or perchance Secretary Kerry wants to have a go at making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Of these three possibilities, the second seems most likely, but word on the street is that the United States or at least the State Department is about to get back into the peace process game.  As one diplomat related, “Well, it is better than doing nothing.  Maybe Kerry will get lucky. You never know.”  Yes, indeed, you never know, but there are a few things the secretary of state should keep in mind as he declares that peace is possible within two years, begins his shuttle diplomacy, offers bridging proposals, admonishes the parties against unilateral actions, calls for a summit, builds confidence, secludes himself and negotiators at Wye River/Shepherdstown/Camp David, writes a road map, and declares his optimism that the parties are ready for a breakthrough:

1.     The Palestinians’ minimal requirements for peace—half of Jerusalem, return of Palestinian refugees, and a territorially contiguous state with all the attributes of sovereignty, the Israelis cannot deliver.  Even if some Israeli doves think dividing Jerusalem is a good idea, it is practically impossible given all the resources the Israelis have poured into absorbing the eastern part of the city into a greater municipality under exclusive Israeli control.  There could be allowances for some refugees to return to what is now Israel in a hypothetical peace agreement, but not in the large numbers the Palestinians demand.  And given their experience since the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which did not provide Israelis with any greater security (even as they continued to control Gaza), giving up West Bank territory to a weak Palestinian leadership seems like a strategic blunder.

2.     Israel’s minimal requirements for peace—retaining the strategic ridgeline of the Judean and Samarian hills, a presence in the Jordan Valley, and the demilitarization of the state of Palestine are non-starters for the Palestinians.  If the Palestinians were to agree to Israel’s minimal requirements they might as well agree to nothing at all.  The best they would get is a seat at the UN, which they practically have, and the short-terms hosannas of a cynical international community.  At worst, it would bring about a round of intra-Palestinian bloodletting as no doubt Hamas and other hardliners would work overtime to kill an agreement that did not hand the whole of historic Palestine over to the Palestinians.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not ripe for resolution, as they say. There are, of course, policies that the United States can undertake to create an environment more conducive to serious negotiation, but Washington has neither the political will nor the leverage with either party to make that happen.  One would think that the demographic realities would move the Israelis, but the fact that there will be more Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in the coming decades has not moved Israelis in large numbers to demand fundamental change in the status quo.  This has much to do with the fact that they cannot be assured of security if they withdraw, thereby making way for a Palestinian state.  The immediate result is deadlock, which it is not earth shattering to suggest makes it difficult to find an equitable solution to the conflict overtime.

It is not clear why the new Secretary of State wants to wade into this morass of bleakness and frustration.  There has got be a better reason than “someone’s got to do it.”  I, for one, believe the secretary’s time is better spent de-escalating tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea or attending to global climate change or working to prevent Egypt from melting down—important issues to which one can at least imagine a resolution.



Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by dmh8620

    Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin’s recent essay urged Israel and the US to revive the Clinton/Ohlmert for a Palestinian state based upon borders revised from the 1967 ones. Israeli think tanks point out that Palestinian Arabs will swamp Jews in Israel, either as voters or as apartheid victims, unless they obtain a viable separate nation. Beyond mere blandishments, it will take economic pressure, i.e., foreign aid leverage, for the U.S. to broker any solution to the Israel-Palestine Issue.

  • Posted by Raja M. Ali Saleem

    Despite the fifty years of frustrations and disappointments, I for one, think Kerry should work to resolve Israeli-Palestinian peace. Here are the reasons:
    1. When negotiations start, whether in business and politics, parties in conflict are usually not in the middle where agreement is possible but at the extremes. It is only when they sit together that dialogue brings them together. So, to argue that minimal requirements of both sides are fixed is not correct.
    2. The fact that time is not Israelis’ side should be conveyed clearly. Israeli religious parties have to be explained that a Jewish state is only possible, if there are two states. This fact coming from US SoS should have impact. Isrealis have to be reminded of their own interests forcefully as most of the commentaries don’t focus on this fact and instead focus on Palestinian problems, which unfortunately Israeli public have come to ignore.
    3. If there is one issue on which almost all of the 1.5 billion Muslims unite and blame the West/US, it is this issue. If US has interest in mending this relationship, then it has to work to resolve this issue.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required