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.
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.