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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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Iraq Votes, but Its Nightmare Continues

A poll worker counts ballots after the end of voting during the parliamentary elections in Baghdad, April 30, 2014. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

Iraqis went to the polls today. At least, that’s the official story. But how can a country have an election when it’s embroiled in virtual civil war conditions, run by a gangster politician enforcing a Shiite, sectarian agenda, with some of its major cities besieged by a rough alliance of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and thousands of angry, disaffected Sunnis? Plus, with its Kurdish north careening toward breakaway, independent status?

The tragedy of Iraq continues. Nearly 9,000 Iraqis died last year in violent attacks, suicide and car bombings, and civil war–style violence, and that’s probably an underestimate. In 2014, about a thousand a month are being killed—not quite Syrian levels, but far worse than, say, in Afghanistan. (See the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq for month-by-month details, which understate the deaths.) And since the criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration and its neoconservative allies—along with its liberal-interventionist co-thinkers, such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—Iraq has been plunged into a never-ending nightmare, its body politic ripped asunder, its civil and industrial infrastructure destroyed and its population reduced by at least several hundred thousands who died. Countless millions more suffer from grotesque injuries, psychological trauma and PTSD—especially children.

It’s a testament to the strength and determination of Iraqis that they can have an election at all. But the result isn’t likely to improve Iraq’s pitiful situation, especially since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—the would-be dictator and president-for-life—is almost certain to remain in power, provided that he can cobble together another parliamentary coalition that rests chiefly on his fundamentalist, Shiite-sectarian base. His popularity has been declining in recent years, but now his thundering war against Sunni “terrorists” in Ramadi, Fallujah and the rest of Anbar province, along with somewhat less intense crusades in Salahuddin province, in Mosul and elsewhere, may have managed to stir up enough Shiite sectarian excitement that he can pull off a sizable plurality of the vote. Back in 2010, when an opposition party led by Ayad Allawi—a wily, nonsectarian, secular Shiite politician with a largely Sunni base—won the biggest share of the vote, both the United States and Iran weighed in to prop up Maliki and ensure that he was able to form a government that eventually excluded Allawi. A year later, in 2011, the remaining American troops departed, and within days Maliki went to war against Sunni politicians, the Sunni establishment and others who opposed his authoritarian style. Maliki used spurious charges of terrorism against top politicos, including the Sunni vice president of Iraq, who was forced to flee for his life. Following that, Maliki cracked down viciously on peaceful, Arab Spring–style protests in Anbar, killing hundreds and detaining thousands.

And Maliki has seized control of the levers of influence in Iraq: the media, the armed forces, the intelligence service, the election commission and more. As Matt Bradley reports in The Wall Street Journal, Iraqiyya, the state broadcast service, is deployed at Maliki’s service, “among more than a half-dozen other once-independent institutions that Mr. Maliki has come to dominate and is now using to catapult himself to a third term, say his political opponents, critics and analysts.”

So, it’s no wonder that the Iraqi insurgency that erupted after 2003 is back. This time, it’s enhanced by the chaos in Syria, where a largely Sunni army of Islamist fanatics and rag-tag rebels tied to Al Qaeda and ISIS are battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah have turned into strongholds of the insurgency, and the anti-Maliki radicals have deployed waves of suicide bombers and car bomb experts to slaughter thousands of Shiite civilians in markets, public squares and other soft targets. They’ve also carried out a lethal pattern of assassinations of moderate and establishment Sunnis outside Baghdad.

As reported in depth in a must-read piece in The New Yorker by Dexter Filkins, Maliki—a paranoid, secretive thug who was long one of the leaders of the Shiite-fundamentalist Dawa party—has fallen back on the help of several Shiite paramilitary militia closely tied to Iran, using them to smash Sunni political opposition and to undermine the forces of the independent minded Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. As Filkins relates, the leaders of two of the groups—Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of the Party of God Brigade and Qais al-Khazali of Asa’ib al-Haq—live close to Maliki’s home in the Little Venice area of the old Green Zone. Adds Filkins:

According to Iraqi and American officials, Maliki has begun to deploy both militias against his opponents, mainly the followers of Sadr. “Maliki is using Asa’ib to take out his enemies,” the senior Iraqi lawmaker told me.… Several American and Iraqi officials told me that Muhandis is Maliki’s principal connection to the Iranian regime, acting as the personal representative of Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force. (Maliki responded, “I do have a good relationship with Iran, but I do not have any links with Muhandis.”)

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It was, of course, the United States who catapulted Maliki into power. Even before the 2003 war, the Bush administration—and its principal overseer of Iraqi politics, Zalmay Khalilzad, a neoconservative Afghan-American—built an alliance with Iraq’s Shiites, especially its religious parties, including Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Both Dawa and SCIRI, along with Ahmad Chalabi—the Shiite charlatan who conned the neocons—had close ties to Tehran. (Indeed, SCIRI was a founded as a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.) And in 2006 it was Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, who elevated Maliki to the post of prime minister, with behind-the-scenes maneuvering. That’s why it’s sad but not surprising that Khalilzad, even today, is blathering on about how the United States ought to use its soft power to help Maliki today. In a piece for The National Interest, titled “Iraq’s Elections: What Washington Must Do,” he writes:

Vital American interests are at stake.… Navigating Iraqi politics in the coming months will require a level of deftness, balance, and steadfastness that has eluded the Obama Administration’s Iraq policy to date. However, given the strong relationships that Washington has with key Iraqi leaders and factions, the United States still possesses sufficient leverage in Iraq for securing a government that is beneficial for Iraqis and friendly with the United States.

It’s too late, Zal. The United States has little or no influence in Iraq anymore, just as it has little or no influence over the civil war in Syria, the undemocratic actions of the government in Egypt and the scattered militias of chaotic Libya. Iraq, torn between its Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and pulled this way and that by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, will make its own way—and its own mistakes. And it will take several generations for Iraq to recover from the effects of its destruction in 2003.


Read Next: Anand Gopal on how the US created the Afghan War—and then lost it

Russia Sabotages the Geneva Ukraine Accord, but New Sanctions Won’t Help

pro-Russia rally

Pro-Russia demonstrators rally in eastern Ukraine. (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

The fact that Russia sabotaged the Geneva accord on Ukraine, refusing to condemn the pro-Russian takeovers in eastern Ukrainian cities and making threats to respond militarily if Ukrainian forces crush the rebellion, doesn’t mean that the basic calculus of the Ukraine crisis has changed. Now, as earlier, there is virtually nothing that the United States can do to confront Russia. The sanctions announced today by President Obama and the paltry and symbolic military deployments into Eastern Europe won’t do a thing to stabilize Ukraine. Yes, diplomacy is still the answer, but how will diplomacy work if Russia continues to make it clear that it isn’t interested in diplomatic accords?

In any case, the opposite of diplomacy, namely, the talk of strengthening and expanding NATO in response to Russia’s arrogance in Ukraine, could make things a lot worse. Also making things worse would be US military aid to Ukraine, as Senator Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) is calling for.

Like 9/11, when every security, military, intelligence and police advocate demanded new authorities, new rules and more money, even if none of it had anything to do with stopping Al Qaeda, today in the midst of the Ukraine crisis every pro-NATO advocate, hawk and defender of the Pentagon is cynically using Ukraine to demand a halt to budget cuts, more military spending in Europe, and expansion of NATO. That’s true even to the point of directly threatening an escalated confrontation with Russia in its own backyard, where few believe either the United States or Europe have the will or capacity to make a credible stand. But as Julianne Smith, an official at the hawkish Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank, said in recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there’s even talk about stationing substantial, permanent forces in Eastern Europe:

At the NATO Ministerial in early April, Radek Sikorski, the Polish Foreign Minister, asked NATO to station 10,000 troops on Polish territory as a demonstration of NATO’s resolve to defend its member states. That request went unanswered but raised one of the toughest questions associated with reassuring NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe—will the Alliance consider abandoning a 1997 pledge not to permanently station NATO troops in new member states? That question has triggered a lively debate inside the halls of NATO and across the capitals of NATO member states.

Such proposals are folly, of course, but that hasn’t stopped hawks such as The Washington Post’s semi-neoconservative Jackson Diehl from calling the events in Ukraine a “wake-up call for NATO.”

Meanwhile, the new sanctions announced today, against seven Russian officials and thirty Russian companies, aren’t expected by anyone to make much of a difference. (Indeed, their main impact might be to allow the White House to tell hawks at home that it’s doing something.) Russia is not Cuba, North Korea or Iran, and its vast economy can’t be crippled by sanctions—at least not by anything that won’t also cripple or even devastate Western Europe and perhaps tip the world back into recession. In a masterpiece of understatement, President Obama said, “We don’t yet know whether it is going to work.” Plus, the sort of tough sanctions on Russia that the United States might want will be sharply resisted by Western Europe and by the huge array of companies deeply embedded in Russian business, especially oil and gas and banking.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, despite near-daily calls with Secretary of State John Kerry—and those are a good sign—seems to have utterly forgotten the agreement he signed in Geneva, the accord widely heralded as a possible breakthrough in the standoff. That agreement called for the armed rebel groups who’ve seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine to stand down, and it called for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to dispatch a mission there. But the pro-Russian rebels—who seem not to have wide support in the population—are escalating their actions, and Lavrov has effectively placed them under Moscow’s umbrella. (That’s not surprising, since many of them are probably Russian special forces units and paramilitary groups sponsored by Russia.) In a fairly shocking statement—one widely reflected by both Vladimir Putin and the Russian state-controlled media—Lavrov warned Ukraine not to attack the pro-Russian rebels in the east, as if Ukraine’s forces don’t have the right to enforce law and order in their own territory. Said Lavrov:

If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law.

It isn’t clear what Lavrov means by the “interests of Russians,” since there are supposedly no Russians in Ukraine (except ethnic Russians and Russian language speakers), but his reference to South Ossetia, a breakaway part of Georgia, is clear as day.

In the wake of events that showed that Russia had no intention of living up to the Geneva agreement, Kerry made the right point:

It has now been a week since the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine met in Geneva. We did so after a phone call between President Putin and President Obama, in which both leaders expressed a desire to avoid further escalation in Ukraine. We met in Geneva with a clear mission: to improve security conditions and find political solutions to the conflict threatening the sovereignty and unity of Ukraine. And right there in Geneva, EU High Representative Ashton and I made clear that both Russia and Ukraine had to demonstrate more than good faith. They needed to take concrete actions in order to meet their commitments.

The simple reality is you can’t resolve a crisis when only one side is willing to do what is necessary to avoid a confrontation. Every day since we left Geneva—every day, even up to today, when Russia sent armored battalions right up the Luhansk Oblast border—the world has witnessed a tale of two countries, two countries with vastly different understandings of what it means to uphold an international agreement.

One week later, it is clear that only one side, one country, is keeping its word. And for anyone who wants to create gray areas out of black, or find in the fine print crude ways to justify crude actions, let’s get real—the Geneva agreement is not open to interpretation. It is not vague. It is not subjective. It is not optional. What we agreed to in Geneva is as simple as it is specific.

He pointed out that Ukraine lived up to its side of the agreement, pretty much, and even made important gestures to Russia:

From day one, the Government of Ukraine started making good on its commitments—from day one. From day one, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has kept his word. He immediately agreed to help vacate buildings. He suspended Ukraine’s counterterrorism initiative over Easter, choosing de-escalation, despite Ukraine’s legitimate, fundamental right to defend its own territory and its own people. From day one, the Ukrainian Government sent senior officials to work with the OSCE, in keeping with the agreement, to send them to work in regions where Russia had voiced its most urgent concerns about the security of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. And on day one, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk went on live television and committed his government publicly to all of the people of Ukraine that—and these are his words—committed them to undertake comprehensive constitutional reform that will strengthen the powers of the regions. He directly addressed the concerns expressed by the Russians, and he did so on day one.

But the Russians, who seem intent on destabilizing Ukraine to make sure that it doesn’t tilt West, clearly aren’t responding.

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The New York Times outlined the many, many reasons why Putin isn’t likely to invade Ukraine:

…the cost of a huge occupation force and the responsibility for the welfare of millions more people; the effect of new, more severe Western sanctions on an already weak economy; the possibility of significant Russian casualties caused by an insurgency in eastern Ukraine; a new, implacably anti-Russian western section of Ukraine; and likely pariah status internationally.

But Putin seems determined to keep the heat on.

Read Next: Conn Hallinan on how ethnic tensions and economic crisis have strengthened Europe’s secession movements

The Fatah-Hamas Accord Could Rewrite the Rules in the Middle East


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical, even pessimistic, about the newly announced reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the two main components of the Palestinian movement. After all, they fought a near civil war in 2007, and an earlier unity accord, in 2011, went nowhere. But with the apparent breakdown in the Israel-Palestinian talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry and the United States, whose deadline expires next Tuesday, a Fatah-Hamas accord could rewrite the rules of the so-called peace process.

Since the start of the Kerry-led talks—in which the United States hinted at, but never delivered on, a US-backed outline for what an Israel-Palestine deal should include—it has been Israel, not the Palestinians, that’s refused to budge. That Israeli intransigence, fed by ultra hardliners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, culminated earlier this month when the Israelis refused to follow through on the release of the next round of Palestinian prisoners, and both Kerry and Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister who heads the Israeli delegation, blamed extremists in the Israeli government for scuttling the talks. Their failure, which was widely expected, leaves Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, with several options going forward. The accord with Hamas, which controls Gaza, could be an important first step, especially if it leads the Palestinians to aggressively seek international recognition for a self-declared Palestinian state.

But it’s hardly a silver bullet, and old animosities could easily destroy the fledgling Palestinian accord even before it gets off the ground.

Hamas, badly isolated with its Gaza stronghold under siege, may have felt that it had little choice but to accept a reconciliation offer from Abbas, whose envoys have been in constant contact with Hamas for a long while in search of common ground. The military government in Egypt has clamped down on Hamas, imposing severe restrictions on Egypt-Gaza border traffic, and blaming Hamas for violence in the Sinai peninsula. Worse, Egypt has used Hamas and its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, which ruled Egypt until the 2013 coup d’état by Egypt’s armed forces, as a bludgeon against former President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. (More recently, though, there have been signs that Egypt helped facilitate the Fatah-Hamas accord, including by allowing the passage in and out of Gaza by Fatah officials.) In addition, another Hamas patron, Syria, is embroiled in a civil war, and yet another patron, Iran, can provide only limited help. (Interestingly, Iran’s Press TV, a government-run outlet, seemed to back the Hamas-Fatah accord, headlining, “Fatah-Hamas deal nightmare for US.”)

Iranian officials, long allied with hardliners among the Palestinians, have also consistently said that they’d line up in support of any deal with Israel that the Palestinians—presumably meaning all of the Palestinians—endorse. Meanwhile, Fatah, traditionally supported by the established Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, will campaign among the Arab states for backing for the deal with Hamas, and one of the more intriguing aspects of the Fatah-Hamas accord will be whether or not Saudi Arabia and Iran join together in support of it. A few years ago, Saudi Arabia and Iran worked together to help stabilize Lebanon when the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement threatened to upend the Lebanese national accord. And the emergence of an eventual resolution of Syria’s civil war, which has devolved into a Sunni vs. Shiite proxy war with Saudi Arabia and Iran supporting each side, will also depend on a Saudi-Iran agreement. In that context, the Palestinian agreement could be a harbinger of an end to the Saudi Arabia–Iran opposition that has framed Middle East politics.

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But that’s getting way ahead of the game. The Fatah-Hamas accord has drawn outraged reactions inside Israel, and it hasn’t exactly been welcomed in the United States, either, what with US threats to cut off aid to the Palestinians. (Washington, of course, calls Hamas a “terrorist” organization and has no contact with the group.)

The accord includes provisions, still not nailed down, to form a unity government including both Fatah and Hamas officials within five weeks and a plan to hold elections in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza by the end of the year. It isn’t at all clear whether Hamas will accept the outlines of Fatah’s existing accord with Israel, or the premise that Israel exists as a state (though, to be sure, one with borders to be determined).

Abbas, frustrated with the lack of progress in the talks with Israel, has lately hinted that he’s considering dissolving the Palestinian Authority entirely and throwing administration of the West Bank back into Israel’s lap, which would truly be a stupid and self-defeating move. Now the accord with Hamas, and the possibility of Palestinian-wide elections, holds much more promise going forward. If it holds.

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to break the Israel-Palestine deadlock

Hawks on Both Sides Could Upend Ukraine Diplomacy

Russian flag in Crimea

A demonstrator waves a Russian flag in Crimea (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine today, and to frame the moment Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is issuing blustery threats that seem intended not to advance diplomacy to calm the Ukraine crisis but to inflame it. Indeed, there are hawks on both sides who could foil diplomacy, but so far the Obama administration seems committed to a diplomatic solution. Still, responding to violence over the weekend in eastern Ukraine, where a Russian covert operation is underway to rile up pro-Russian elements there in defiance of the fledgling regime in Kiev, Lavrov noted that the violence—which, it appears, Russian agents have deliberately courted—could be a pretext for wider Russian military action. Here’s the quote from Lavrov:

There has been a surge in appeals to Russia to save them from this outrage. We are being put into an extremely complex position…. Those who are deliberately pursuing a civil war, in a possible attempt to start a big, serious bloody conflict, are pursuing a criminal policy. And we will not only condemn this policy but will also stop it.

Of course, Lavrov’s comments fit Vladimir Putin’s theme of late, namely, that Russia must act as the guarantor of ethnic Russians left outside Russia’s borders when the USSR collapsed. Reports Reuters:

The senior European mediator in eastern Ukraine held his first talks on Monday with the leader of pro-Russian separatists in the city of Slaviansk, a flashpoint of the crisis. Mark Etherington told reporters he met the self-declared, separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, for two hours. He had asked whether Ponomaryov and his group would comply with last week’s Geneva accord under which Russia and Ukraine agreed that militants should disarm and vacate occupied public buildings. Etherington did not say how the separatist leader responded or give further details. He said he also asked about people who had been detained in Slaviansk, including the previous mayor, about reports of maltreatment of the Roma minority and about a gunfight on Sunday in which at least three men were killed.

The mayor and his cohorts have so far resisted compliance with the Geneva agreement, and it isn’t clear whether or not Russia is pressing them to stand down.

Biden has emerged as Obama’s point man on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and earlier he visited Poland and Lithuania. He’s mostly avoided provocative rhetoric, although the United States has apparently agreed to send symbolic military units to rotate in and out of NATO countries in Eastern Europe. If such deployments remain symbolic—i.e., very small numbers of troops, as it appears, and only temporary—then they’re not likely to worsen the crisis. But if Obama and Biden go along with the ideas of various hawks to dispatch significant forces eastward, then Putin will almost certainly respond in kind.

So what is Obama doing? A troubling piece by Peter Baker in The New York Times on April 19 is headlined “In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin.” In it, he writes:

Mr. Obama has concluded that even if there is a resolution to the current standoff over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin, aides said. As a result, Mr. Obama will spend his final two and a half years in office trying to minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.

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But there’s more going on. It appears that hawks inside the administration, as well as John McCain and other hawks outside, are putting a lot of pressure on Obama to take a tougher stand. According to the Times, the hawks are frustrated with the Obama-Biden decision to hold off:

The more hawkish faction in the State and Defense Departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Mr. Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation. They have pressed for faster and more expansive sanctions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without action.

The Times adds:

The prevailing view in the West Wing, though, is that while Mr. Putin seems for now to be enjoying the glow of success, he will eventually discover how much economic harm he has brought on his country. Mr. Obama’s aides noted the fall of the Russian stock market and the ruble, capital flight from the country and the increasing reluctance of foreign investors to expand dealings in Russia.

So far, Obama and Biden seem committed to diplomacy, and they’ve secured the accord with Russia that includes the OSCE monitoring mission. But they have to resist the hawks both inside and outside. Meanwhile, what about the hawks on the other side—and what if, among those hawks, is Putin himself?


Read Next: William Greider on how under Putin, Russia is acting a lot like the US.

A Light at the End of the Ukraine Tunnel?

Anti-Russia protest

Ukrainians in Kiev protest the presence of Russian troops in Crimea. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

This post will be updated over the weekend as events require, so please check back.

To begin with, here’s the full text of the agreement reached in Geneva on Ukraine:

The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens.

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.

It’s a good and promising start, and a sign that there is a diplomatic solution at the end of this particular tunnel—even if, so far, it isn’t recognized by the pro-Russian thugs who’ve taken over government buildings in several cities across eastern Ukraine—among whom, NATO says, are a number of secret Russian forces à la Crimea. There’s still a long way to go, before some sort of more final accord is reached on a compromise between Russia’s demand that Ukraine be essentially divided and broken up and Kiev’s demand—backed by the United States, so far—that Ukraine be only slightly less centralized than it has been. But, because Russia holds the high cards in military terms, and wields huge economic influence over Ukraine, Moscow can hang tough and probably get most of what it wants. The real news here is that President Obama—perhaps because of his noted caution in foreign policy and perhaps because Western Europe, closely tied economically to Russia, is far more cautious than the United States is—is apparently committed to a diplomatic resolution above all.

Even the hawkish, often neoconservative-leaning Washington Post editorial page is optimistic—a big step, since only the other day its editorial said—far, far too pessimistically—that “it’s probably too late to prevent war in Ukraine.” In its editorial today, it says:

We were among those who doubted that a meeting on Ukraine in Geneva Thursday could produce results, given the weak Western response to Russian aggression. So count us as pleasantly surprised by the “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security” that the parties announced.

War, of course, is and always was highly unlikely over Ukraine—mostly because the stakes are so imbalanced: Ukraine is vastly important to Russia and very, very unimportant to the United States, strategically. Still, and ugly standoff there, marked by clashes, bad words and escalating aid to each side in the conflict could have poisoned relations between the United States and Russia for many years to come—and it still might.

The next problem is: how to suppress the minority, extremist pro-Russian mobs who’ve taken over institutions in the east. They’ve already rejected the Geneva accord, and they say they’re not going anywhere. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces are haphazardly organized, poorly armed and incompetent, and they don’t seem capable of retaking the buildings on their own—at least not with a lot of bloodshed among civilians, especially. CNN quotes a leader of the nonexistent “Donetsk People’s Republic” speaking about Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov:

“Lavrov did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters in the city.

According to RT, Lavrov stresses that the accord opens the door to a national dialogue and constitutional reform, and that’s where Russia will press for sweeping decentralization of Ukraine, with autonomy for the east in particular. No doubt Russia will keep eastern Ukraine on simmer, at least, until the next steps are agreed upon, and nowhere in the accord do the parties say anything about the presence of 40,000 Russian troops perched on Ukraine’s borders—nor does it address US and Western aid to Kiev, either economic or military.

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A good sign is that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an East-West group, will help de-escalate things by monitoring the situation on the ground, especially in the east. Says the OSCE release:

Swiss Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter welcomed the outcome of the discussions between the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, the United States and the Russian Federation as well as the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who met today in Geneva.

Burkhalter underlined that the OSCE was ready to take up the key role given to the Special Monitoring Mission in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of the various measures agreed in the Geneva Statement. He praised the Geneva Statement as an expression of confidence towards the OSCE as an inclusive platform for supporting de-escalation in Ukraine.

“As new tasks and responsibilities have been assigned to the OSCE, I count on the continuous international support in funding and seconding of staff to the Special Monitoring Mission,” he added.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on diplomacy and the Ukraine crisis

How Should Obama Respond to Putin’s Ukraine Provocations?

Russian flag in Crimea

A demonstrator waves a Russian flag in Crimea in March. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s obstreperous president, is running a major covert operation in eastern Ukraine, including the dispatch of a limited number of Russian special forces and support for pro-Russian militias there. It isn’t quite clear yet whether Putin is (a) preparing the ground for a Crimea-style takeover of part or all of Ukraine (unlikely), (b) trying to destabilize Ukraine so that it, and its Western allies, agree to the radical decentralization and federalization plan that Russia has demanded, or (c) making it clear that Ukraine ought not to link its political and economic future with the West, or else. But whichever it is, it’s a dangerous game. So how should President Obama respond?

There is, of course, a diplomatic solution—and within Ukraine itself, that means some sort of decentralization that allows eastern Ukraine some form of very limited autonomy. That would be a compromise between a strong central state in Kiev, in which the president appoints governors of regions, and the sort of neat-total autonomy that Russia favors.

The United States is very limited in its options. Militarily, there’s no real response that makes any sense whatsoever, and it appears that Obama gets that. Ukraine’s utterly disorganized armed forces are no match for the Russian army in any conceivable context, so the idea of sending either significant arms or even nonlethal military aid—“like body armor, night-vision goggles, communications gear and aviation fuel,” as proposed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Philip A. Karber—to Ukraine can’t possibly bolster Ukraine’s forces enough even to slow down either a Russian action to seize eastern Ukraine or a blitzkrieg into Kiev, if that’s what Putin is planning. Similarly, the idea—from a neocon-linked former American ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey—to deploy ground troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would escalate the confrontation to no good end, since none of those nations are directly threatened by the Ukraine crisis and it would probably force Putin to escalate further.

So far, Obama has reportedly rejected both Gen. Clark’s recommendations and isn’t considering Jeffrey’s idea, but a further escalation by Putin would certainly force Obama to respond far more harshly than the limited array of sanctions announced so far. According to The Wall Street Journal, Obama is reviewing a range of responses, including greatly expanded economic sanctions and even the sort of military deployment that Ambassador Jeffrey calls for.

It should be pointed out that Ukraine is a sovereign country, and that whatever it does to protect its security and national integrity is its own business. In that context, the fact that CIA Director John Brennan paid a visit to Kiev—to howls of outrage from Moscow—or that Ukraine has decided to hire private contractors, including the former Blackwater, to help Kiev reassert control of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are acting up, isn’t ground for Russian complaints. The White House has properly endorsed Ukraine’s attempts to suppress the pro-Russian gangs in cities along the Russia-Ukraine border, although those efforts are weak and badly managed, given Ukraine’s overall chaotic state and limited resources. Still, so far it appears that Ukraine isn’t willing to shed a lot of blood in suppressing the pro-Russian actions, since that would only increase the enmity toward Kiev in eastern Ukraine and inflame things further—besides giving Russia a pretext to intervene further because of Putin’s flimsy and unsubstantiated claim that Kiev “fascists” are threatening ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, the purpose of Brennan’s Kiev visit was to begin the process of sharing “real-time intelligence” with Kiev, though for what reason isn’t clear, since Ukraine can’t possibly withstand Russian military pressure. It’s possible that the United States will work more closely with Ukraine on deployments of Ukrainian forces in cities to the east affected by Russian covert ops.

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But the Ukraine crisis faces Obama with an exceedingly difficult challenge. He can’t afford to issue any red lines, such as the one he issued vis-à-vis Syria, since the United States simply does not have the wherewithal to confront Russian militarily in what is essentially Russia’s backyard, nor is the American interest in Ukraine significant enough to warrant a showdown. Critics of Obama, however, are pointing to Syria—where Obama has so far opted against war—as a sign of the president’s alleged weakness, adding that the Ukraine crisis is a Russian test of Obama’s will. However, as David Ignatius puts it in The Washington Post:

As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn’t—as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.

And Ignatius adds:

Obama doesn’t want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.

But the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis is that, unless the ongoing diplomacy resolves it in a compromise between Russia and the West, US-Russia relations will be in a deep freeze for many years to come, and that could affect a host of regional wars and crises, from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond.

Read Next: Conn Hallinan on how ethnic tensions and economic crisis have strengthened Europe’s secession movements

Will Obama and Kerry Play Their High Cards Against Israeli Hardliners?

Obama with Netanyahu and Abbas

President Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

The deadline, supposedly April 29, for a deal of some kind between Israel and the Palestinians—what Secretary of State John Kerry calls a “framework agreement”—is close, and although the talks appeared to have fallen apart earlier this month, the two sides held what The Wall Street Journal calls “a rare meeting without U.S. mediator Martin Indyk present” on Sunday. It isn’t clear what the meeting means, and it may be too late for any deal to be reached by the end of April, but at least Kerry is putting the blame for the roadblocks where it belongs: on Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

To recap: last week, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he used to chair, to howls of outrage from Israel and from its American partisans, Kerry directly blamed Israel for sabotaging the talks, by announcing the construction of 700 settlements in occupied territory outside Jerusalem. “Poof!” said Kerry, describing how the talks came to a sudden halt. “That was sort of the moment.” Israel also threw a tool-box full of monkey wrenches into the talks by refusing to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners, though they had pledged to do so as part of the Kerry-led talks. Following those actions by Israel, the Palestinians announced their intention to apply for membership, as a state, in more than a dozen United Nations organizations, and then Netanyahu escalated by declaring his intent to take more “unilateral” actions that would further throw the talks into the deep freeze. But it was clearly Israel, and its intransigent prime minister, who was chiefly to blame for wrecking the talks.

It wasn’t only Kerry who put the blame on Israel. As The New York Times reported last week:

Tzipi Livni, the justice minister and the government’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said she believed that Uri Ariel, the housing minister, had acted deliberately to sabotage the peace effort.

Hardly a liberal peacenik, Livni is a former member of the ultraright Likud coalition. But more recently, she’s emerged as a strong advocate for a two-state solution, and the fact that she was named as Israel’s chief negotiator was thought to be a good sign, at the start of the talks in 2013. Now, Livni is engaged in political warfare with the far-right components of the ruling coalition—not only Housing Minister Ariel but Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, too, who Livni says is the representative of Israel’s fanatical settler movement, including the settlement of Yitzhar, where settlers attacked security police recently, and not of Israel itself. According to Haaretz, the Israeli daily, Livni added:

And so everything is connected. This man and his party are damaging Israel’s security. They’re the ones trying to make sure that there’s no peace agreement—that the young men of Yitzhar become official Israel. I won’t let this happen.

Bennett, the leader of the hardline Jewish Home party, closely affiliated with the settler movement, and other extremists inside Netanyahu’s coalition, are the ones sabotaging the talks, says Livni. Reports The Times of Israel:

She also accused the hard-line “Jewish Home,” a pro-settler party, of trying to thwart her efforts. She took special aim at the party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements.

“There are people in the government who don’t want peace,” Livni said. “Bennett and Uri Ariel represent those who want to prevent a peace process.”

So far, it seems that Netanyahu is leaning toward the hardliners. But Livni’s courageous stand provides crucial cover for Kerry’s decision to blame Israel for the breakdown. And that’s important, because even a slight move by Kerry to take the Palestinian side in the talks will terrify Israeli politicians and political powers. Although it often seems as if Israel is immune to American pressure, in fact that pressure is rarely applied, and Israel is so dependent on the United States for political support—in the UN, say—and for American economic and military support that even a slight indication that the United States is reviewing its Israel policy will send chills down Israeli spines. The problem, historically, is that the United States has rarely been willing to use that influence.

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Kerry, naturally, is under fire from the Israel lobby’s partisans on Capitol Hill. But they’re greatly weakened, because of their opposition to the ongoing US-Iran talks, which appear to be progressing successfully. When the Israel lobby on the Hill and its organizer, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, tried to sabotage the Iran talks by legislating yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions, President Obama’s White House in January suggested that backers of those sanctions want war with Iran, and called their bluff. As I reported back in January, a White House statement said:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

That statement shocked AIPAC and its allies to the core. Right now, despite Israel’s intransigence, Obama and Kerry hold all the high cards. Let’s see if they lay them down.


Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on how to break the Israel-Palestine deadlock.

How to Break the Israel-Palestine Deadlock


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool)

There’s one hope, one last hope, to revive the pretty-much-dead Israel-Palestinian peace talks that the indefatigable Secretary of State John Kerry has been pursuing since last year, and whose deadline, albeit artificially imposed, falls at the end of April. And that would be this: that the United States stop going back and forth between the intransigent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the weak, divided and powerless Palestine Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and simply say what it thinks, and offer its own, detailed outline of what a solution should look like. In the long history of American Middle East diplomacy—indeed, even going back to 1967, to the post-1973 Sinai accord, to the late 1970s Sadat-Begin accords, the Oslo agreement and the Bill Clinton–led talks at the very end of his second term—that’s never been done. Midway through the current round, there were plenty of reports that Kerry was considering doing exactly that, specifying what the United States believes the “final status” should be.

Maybe—probably not—but maybe, that’s what’s coming. In its report today on Kerry’s return to Washington, where he’s consulting with President Obama about what comes next, way down in its article The New York Times says that Kerry might release “an American peace plan”:

For all that, some experts said Mr. Kerry was so committed to his Middle East initiative that it was more likely he would push for a change in diplomatic strategy, perhaps by offering an American peace plan, instead of simply walking away from the negotiations.

Let’s first say why it’s unlikely to happen, and then why it is important that it does.

Why it’s unlikely is because there’s little or no sign that Obama, even deep into his second term, is prepared for a showdown with Israel. (That, of course, puts him in the company of every president since, well… of every president.) It isn’t even clear that Obama has done anything more than watch Kerry’s intensive, nonstop shuttle diplomacy with bemused detachment since it started last summer. Since then, even White House officials and others have taken potshots at Kerry’s efforts, enough so that the president himself had to weigh in, damning Kerry with what looked like faint praise while acknowledging the naysayers inside his administration. Said Obama:

I see a lot of senior officials quoted about Kerry and Middle East peace but I’m the most senior official, and I have nothing but admiration for how John has handled this.

Maybe Obama does support Kerry, but it isn’t clear what that means. Were Kerry to release an American plan, obviously with Obama’s support, it would henceforth be clear that the president and the secretary of state are on the same page.

The central problem in the US-initiated round of talks—which almost never involved the Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, just Kerry going back and forth—is that not once did the United States indicate that it was willing to put the squeeze on Israel to force Netanyahu to make the necessary concessions needed to get things moving. In fact, Israel holds all the high cards: it has a iron grip on the occupied West Bank and a viselike hold around Gaza, an almost impossible-to-challenge intelligence and security blanket smothering West Bank towns and villages and a military that is overwhelmingly the strongest in the region—plus, it faces a weak and divided PA, whose leaders are unelected, which reigns over an economically devastated region and which is undermined by the religious-right Hamas, both in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank itself. So, unless the United States is prepared to put its thumb on the scale, to use its enormous leverage over Israel—which, after all, it sustains, on virtual life support—then why would an ultra-right Israeli government make a deal that it opposes on political, security and even religious grounds?

So why is it important that the United States put forward its own plan? First, because the United States has its own national interest, independent of Israel’s and independent of Palestine’s, in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it ought to say so. Second, because anyone and everyone who’s looked at the problem knows pretty much what a deal would include: the near-total withdrawal from the West Bank by Israel, the removal of Israel’s illegal settlements, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza on land approximating the 1967 lines, the readjustment of the 1967 lines by swapping at least a little territory between the two, the division of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both states, a long-term security plan that demilitarizes the new Palestinian state while providing US and/or other international military forces in key areas, such as the Jordan Valley, a mutually acceptable plan for Palestinian refugees (few of whom will be able to go back to Israel proper) and many billions of dollars: to finance the removal of Israel’s 500,000 settlers, to prop up Palestine economically, to compensate Palestinian refugees resettling in the new state and more. That’s pretty much the plan, so why not say so?

Here’s why it’s important: stating that forthrightly as American policy would create enormous pressure on Israel. Yes, the Palestinians will object to parts of it, and they’ll demand a lot on the issue of refugees, under the heading of the “right of return.” But, even though there’ve been polls showing that the majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state, the far-right coalition led by Netanyahu is exceedingly unlikely to go along with anything like the plan just outlined without some coercion. Indeed, for such a plan to be implemented, it would probably mean the collapse of Netanyahu’s coalition, the realignment of Israeli politics and the emergence of a pragmatic bloc within Israel designed to win and keep the American life-support aid flowing. Netanyahu, faced with such a plan, would either have to quietly leave politics or realign himself with centrists and pragmatists.

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But note that implicit in the announcement of an American plan—and it wouldn’t have to be stated explicitly—would be that the United States would have to hold over Israel’s head the vast US economic, military and political support it provides to Israel. That doesn’t mean cutting Israel off, and don’t forget that the obstreperous US Congress, in league with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would fight any lessening of American aid. But there are plenty of things that the Obama administration can do without cutting off aid: change the way it votes at the United Nations Security Council, reduce US military cooperation with Israel, begin contacts with Hamas, reduce its special-relationship exchanges with Netanyahu’s government and simply change the language it uses about the conflict. (Recall the flap in Obama’s first term when he simply said that the United States supports a solution based on the 1967 borders, even though that’s been the American position since, well, the passage of Resolutions 242 and 338 after the 1967 war.)

In the end, after all of Kerry’s efforts, Netanyahu didn’t even bother to keep the commitments he made at the start. Instead, his government has announced the expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements and refused to release the latest group of Palestinian prisoners. (Remember, back in 2009, how Netanyahu openly defied Obama, when he flatly rejected Obama’s public urging that Israel halt settlements.)

So Kerry has one more play to make: to outline what he thinks a final status agreement would look like. It’s time to show his hand.

For Obama, there’s a political risk. Not only would he draw fire from pro-Israel hardliners and neoconservatives, but he’d risk open defiance from Netanyahu. But so what? By negotiating with Iran toward an accord over that country’s nuclear program—talks that will have another round this week—Obama is implicitly threatening an open break with Israel, which is certain to reject any deal that emerges. Might as well risk it all now.

Based on past events, it doesn’t seem likely that Obama will do anything like what I’ve suggested. It’s unlikely, though not inconceivable. But it’s the right thing to do.

Read Next: Chase Madar on why bankrolling Israel prevents peace in the Middle East

Benghazi Redux. And Redux. And Redux.

Benghazi consulate

Libyan military guards at of the US Consulate's burnt out buildings. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

The OCD GOP yesterday held yet another hearing on the nonexistent crisis over the September 11, 2012, assault on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Yes, another one. Writing in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank called it “hearing number 1,372,569, give or take,” and it certainly seems that way. Even though a massive official report made it clear that there was no political conspiracy to hide the truth about Benghazi, even though an exhaustive investigative report in The New York Times laid out the sequence of events in a very convincing manner, and even though President Obama did indeed describe the assault as a “terror” attack immediately after it occurred, the obsessive-compulsives in the Republican party can’t let go.

Thus, with Fox News cheerleading, another hearing. (And, as Fox points out, various deluded conservatives and a handful of Republican operatives took to Twitter during the hearing to yap about it.)

This really is a big deal to the far right, who argue that in a nefarious plot, President Obama and his team covered up the fact that it was Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who attacked the compound in Benghazi (it wasn’t), that the CIA and Susan Rice, then the US ambassador to the United Nations, engaged in some sort of political shenanigans to convince Americans that it was no big deal on the eve of the presidential election (they didn’t) and that the White House and the Pentagon blithely ignored calls for help from the US personnel under attack (they didn’t). Still, on every Fox News broadcast, on the right-wing blogs, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference and elsewhere among the hard-core GOP faithful, “Benghazi” is a code word for Obama’s alleged fecklessness and perfidy.

At yesterday’s hearing, Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the CIA, bothered to testify at a hearing convened by Representative Mike Rogers, the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who’s about the leave Congress to become (wait for it!) a talk show host. Not surprisingly, but with some restraint, Morell patiently explained that there was no conspiracy. Saying that the CIA compiled the “talking points” on the Benghazi attack, immediately after it occurred, based on the “best available information at the time,” Morell added:

I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did—never. None of our actions were the result of political influence in the intelligence process—none.... The White House did not make any substantive changes to the talking points, nor did they ask me to.

Reports Milbank:

Did he have a conversation with anyone at the White House about the nature of the talking points?

“No, sir.”

His thoughts on the false information Susan Rice gave on TV the Sunday after the attacks?

“What she said about the attacks evolving spontaneously from a protest was exactly what the talking points said.”

How about the claims that somebody in the administration told the military not to assist on the night of the attack?

“I am aware of several requests by CIA for military support that night, and those requests were honored and delivered.”

Milbank adds that Representative Peter King (R-NY) “let loose a string of insults,” Representative Michelle Bachmann said that she believes (sans evidence) “that there was an intentional misleading of the public,” and that Representative Frank LoBiondo “shouted virtually his entire statement,” in which, hilariously, he said:

We get on talking points, and we get about who said this and whether the station chief said that. And the bottom line is that we’ve got people running around who killed Americans, who are sipping mai tais or whatever they’re sipping, and we can’t do anything about it.

Mai tais? Unless the Al Qaeda people he is worried about were drinking virgin mai tais, it’s unlikely that the strict Islamists who did assault the Benghazi compound had suddenly found a decree from some drunken imam that alcohol was no longer haram.

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Politico, which appears to have taken the whole thing way too seriously, in its report quotes Rogers, King and others extensively, as if they were a bunch of Sherlock Holmeses who had finally gotten to the bottom of some mystery. But Morell quietly explained that he didn’t even know that Susan Rice would be appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, and that he didn’t know she’d be using the CIA-generated talking points, which anyway were subject to changes and updates as new information became available. As to whether the attack, which was first described as a protest over the Internet-circulated video about the Prophet Mohammad, and then as a pre-planned terrorist assault, was one or the other, Morell explained to the shouting committee members:

I believed what my analysts said, that there was a protest. I also believed it to be a terrorist attack. You see, we never, we never saw those two things as mutually exclusive, and so I believed both of those at the same time.

Before yesterday's hearing, Bill O’Reilly, the noted foreign policy expert, had this to say:

Now, the big picture: President Obama was running for re-election when the terrorists hit Benghazi and his campaign was touting his effective policies on terrorism. So there could have been a political motivation to keep terrorists out of the Benghazi debacle. If the Obama administration lied, that's an abuse of power. If the CIA cooperated in the lie, that's an abuse of power. As we all know from Watergate, abuses of power can lead to very bad things.

So Benghazi is a big story whether the left wants to admit it or not. To be fair we need to hear from Mr. Morell tomorrow under oath, and people should not be making blanket accusations against the President or anyone else. But this whole thing is very suspicious. If that CIA memo counters what Ambassador Rice said, all hell should break loose, even with apathetic media.

But it’s obvious that hell, even among the apathetic media, isn’t breaking loose.

Don’t worry: to be continued. And continued.


Read Next: Tom Engelhardt on how sensational news stories distract us from real crises.

The Palestine Talks Break Down (Haven't We Seen That Headline Before?)


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Gali Tibbon/Pool)

Blaming the Palestinians for the apparent breakdown in Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-fated shuttle diplomacy is like blaming the victim of a mugging for the crime. Kerry’s diplomacy was always a long shot, and not because the problem is so intractable but because Israel’s government is so ultraconservative and so adamant about its God-given right to “Judea and Samaria” that it was never apparent that an accord could be reached.

The only hope for a deal, if one existed, would have been if Kerry had announced his own plan. It had been reported for quite a while that Kerry had a plan in his back pocket that he was going to announce, outlining the shape of a Palestinian-Israeli accord, according to the American idea. Where is the plan? So far, we haven’t seen it. Now that the talks are faltering, it might be the time for Kerry to show his cards.

The Washington Post headlines its piece, “Obama administration scrambles to rescue foundering Mideast peace talks.” In The New York Times, it’s, "Palestinians Defy U.S. and Israel, Leaving Peace Talks in Peril.” What caused the great kerfuffle is simply that the Palestinians delivered 15 letters to United Nations agencies asking, as is their right, to be admitted as members of those agencies—but not, in a gesture to Israel, to the International Criminal Court, under whose jurisdiction they could have brought war crimes charges against Israel. Until now, the Palestinians had held off on joining UN agencies, mostly a symbolic step, in order not to rile the Israelis. But after months of talks that seemed to go nowhere, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his allies had apparently had enough.

The immediate trigger for the Palestinian action was Israel’s refusal, so far, to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, as called for in an interim agreement in 2013. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had balked, and it appears that Kerry was willing to go as far as to offer the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel, in order to induce cooperation from Israel. Nearly everyone who’s looked at that idea has concluded that it’s a terrible one, and anyway, Pollard has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict—so it was just an odd sort of bribe to Netanyahu.

But the flap over the latest group of Palestinian prisoners is only a smokescreen for the fact that Israel has no signs of being willing to budge on giving the Palestinians a viable state in the lands occupied by Israeli forces in 1967—which, of course, would mean returning to the 1967 borders, pulling the Jewish settlers out and giving the Palestinians access to a share of Jerusalem for their capital. Kerry, it seems, had tried to persuade Israel to go along with a formula like that, part of which involved working out arrangements for US troops to take up positions along the Jordan River, on what would be the eastern frontier of a Palestinian state, in order to assuage Israeli security concerns. Lots of other details had been worked out, including how long settlements might stay, how long Israeli and international forces might remain in what’s now the occupied West Bank, and more. And Kerry had apparently made initial steps toward amassing many billions of dollars from international sources—funds for Palestinian economic development, for resettling Palestinian refugees, for moving Jewish settlers and even for compensating Israel for the costs of accepting Jewish refugees from Middle East countries over the past decades.

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Were Kerry to release his plan now, it would either (a) reveal that it was so tilted toward Israel that it was hopeless from the start, or (b) put Israel under great pressure to agree to an even-handed plan that has the full support of the United States. In the long history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States has never once announced a plan of its own or declared its own ideas about what an accord might look like. Instead, under president after president, the United States has always said that it’s “up to the two parties.” But with Israel holding nearly all the cards, that means that any agreement would massively favor the Israeli point of view. Yesterday, a frustrated Kerry threw up his hands, canceled a planned trip to the Middle East, and said, “In the end, it is up to the parties.”

Israel has thrown a series of roadblocks up all along the way, including the most recent, new demand that the Palestinians accept Israel “as a Jewish state,” whatever that means. In Israel's view it seems to mean that Palestinians who currently live inside Israel will always be second-class citizens. In the twenty-first century, what state has the chutzpah to declare (and insist) that it is designed exclusively for a particular ethnic or religious bloc? Well, except for various ultra-Islamic countries, many of which do so in order to placate Muslim extremists within their borders, Israel is the only one. That’s fine, if that’s their choice, but why demand that the Palestinians ratify it before a deal?


Read Next: Bernard Avishai on John Judis's new book about Truman and the origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict.

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