Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Mideast Peace Gap: Why Kerry Has Failed. By Aaron David Miller.

The Mideast peace gap: Why Kerry has failed. By Aaron David Miller. Los Angeles Times, May 10, 2014. 

Kerry’s Mideast “Failure” Was a Success. By Shmuel Rosner. New York Times, May 9, 2014.

No Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal? What Went Wrong. By Alon Ben-Meir. History News Network, May 13, 2014. 


Why exactly did Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s well-intentioned effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement fail?

In a fascinating postmortem, unnamed American officials involved in the negotiations told Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea the following: “There are a lot of reasons for the peace efforts failure, but people in Israel shouldnt ignore the bitter truth — the primary sabotage came from the settlements.”

If you believe that, I have a bridge over the mighty Jordan River to sell you.

Nobody doubts the destructive impact of settlement activity. It prejudges and predetermines the outcome of negotiations, humiliates Palestinians and sends unmistakable signals that Israel has other agendas to pursue. And if we’re talking about the failure of Kerry’s effort to secure a relatively meaningless extension of the talks, I don’t doubt the explanation.

But let’s be clear: Kerry’s peace process didn’t fail primarily because of settlements. It has been on life support from the beginning, and here’s why.

The mini/max problem: Simply put, the maximum that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to give on the core issues that drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be aligned, let alone reconciled, with the minimum that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to accept. You want to know why every effort in the last decade has failed? That's why.

The gaps on Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state are simply too big to bridge. They are not amenable to being resolved gradually and not feasible as a package of trade-offs that both sides can accept. We can rationalize, and blame one side or the other. But the price for a conflict-ending agreement is simply too high for each side to bear.

Courting Bibi: The idea that Netanyahu is ready to pay the price and could be persuaded to do so was a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his times. Now the longest continuously serving prime minister in Israel’s history, Bibi never envisioned himself as the midwife or father of a Palestinian state. That’s not who he is. Ideology, family, politics and his fears of the Arabs all drive him in a different direction.

His self-image is as the Israeli leader who is to lead Israel out of the shadow of the Iranian nuclear bomb and to guide it through the challenges of a dangerously broken, angry and dysfunctional Arab world. And he reflects the mood of an Israeli public that sees almost no reason or urgency — regardless of U.S. doom-and-gloom threats of violence, third intifadas, apartheid state or demography — to grapple with the problem. Governing is about choosing. And for now, Netanyahu has made his choice.

Banking on Abbas: The Palestinians were the weakest party to the negotiations, and the notion that they could be counted on to make concessions that would take them beyond their established consensus — June 1967 borders, a capital in East Jerusalem, some semblance of sovereignty on the security issue and a resolution to the refugee problem that doesn’t force a wholesale capitulation — was the other illusory assumption. Under Yasser Arafat, a leader with more street cred and legitimacy than Abbas, Palestinians were not prepared to depart from this consensus. Why would Abbas — a much weaker leader — be prepared to do it, or accede to demands that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

The issue is not what Abbas was prepared to tell Kerry or Netanyahu in private. It is what he was prepared to say publicly and what he needed to be paid to say it. Abbas is presiding over a weak economy and a divided Palestinian national movement that looks like Noah’s ark, in which there are two of everything (polities, security services, constitutions and even visions of Palestine). He has very little Arab state support. The notion that he could be depended on for major deliverables was a fantasy.

Indeed, American negotiators, myself included, have been underestimating what Palestinians need in negotiations for years. Abbas always had a Plan B: going to the U.N., negotiating unity with Hamas, even toying with dissolving the Palestinian Authority. He’s much more comfortable in that milieu, and Netanyahu is more comfortable being a security prime minister rather than a peace prime minister. Abbas feels no urgency either to negotiate a peace that doesn’t meet his needs.

Kerry’s last chance: Nobody could argue that it was wrong for Kerry to try to see what he could do about the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But nobody should be surprised that he couldn’t succeed. Kerry's effort was very much built around what he saw as his moment and assessment that the time was ripe, when in fact it wasn’t. Neither side saw much urgency in the Kerry effort, and President Obama wasn’t prepared to endorse an approach in which Kerry would have pressured Israel directly or even indirectly by putting forth an American plan.

It was probably not a great idea for Kerry to describe his effort as the last chance or to frame the consequences of what might happen (largely to Israel) if no two-state solution were achieved. The parties can’t be scared into an agreement. And, if this is the last chance, then the question hangs: Why didn’t Kerry and the president make this their single most important preoccupation and do everything they could, including intense pressure on the parties to reach an agreement?

Sooner or later some kind of peace process will resume. Like rock ’n’ roll, the peace process will never die. The question is whether it will succeed. As for the U.S., it remains trapped in a peace process that is adrift between a two-state solution Washington can’t abandon and one that it cannot implement. But next time around, let’s at least be honest about why we can’t achieve it. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians — nor Obama — is willing or able to pay the price of what it would cost.


JERUSALEM — John Kerry’s April 29 deadline came and went, and an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord was not reached. It’s doubtful whether the two sides are any closer today to an accord than they were nine months ago, when an arbitrary deadline was set for the end of April by which something was supposed to happen — and did not. Many consider this a failure. But it’s actually, in a way, a success.

Back in December, halfway into the negotiation, when it was already clear that the parties would have difficulties agreeing on much, Mr. Kerry, the architect of the talks, was still hopeful that “we can achieve that final-status agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians were wondering whether they should admire Mr. Kerry for his doggedness, or consider him a fool.

No one in the region was terribly surprised when the deadline wasn’t met and the talks collapsed. In survey after survey, both Israelis and Palestinians conveyed mutual skepticism: They didn’t believe that an agreement could be reached, and were losing trust in the American mediator.

Late last month, a headline in this newspaper announced: “Arc of a failed deal.” Yet failure is in the eye of the beholder. And in this case only those who expected a deal — the Americans — failed.

They failed to reach their goal, and failed to understand that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have other goals in mind (or, more likely, they understood yet failed to draw the proper conclusions). But for the two parties with real interests at stake, the talks were a success. They succeeded in proving, once again, that there are things more important for them than peace and calm — things like national pride, sacred traditions, symbols and land.

Both parties entered the talks without any hope of reaching an agreement, and both are now exiting having reached their unstated aim: to avoid a deal in which they were never interested, without having to bear the full blame for dropping the ball.

“What we haven’t seen is, frankly, the kind of political will to actually make tough decisions. And that’s been true on both sides,” President Obama commented following news of the breakdown in the talks. Surely, each side would prefer to see Mr. Obama place the blame on the other side, but sharing it is reasonably tolerable.

There are two false perceptions that repeatedly distort discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. First is the misguided idea that everybody knows what a final deal will look like, and that the inability to reach it is basically a diplomatic technicality. And second is the unfounded belief that Israelis and Palestinians want peace more than anything else.

They don’t.

Of course, Israelis and Palestinians, like all people everywhere, want to live without violence. But they also want many other things, some of which they want more passionately than peace. Many Israelis, for example, would rather not have peace than relinquish control over the Old City of Jerusalem and surrounding holy sites. And many Palestinians, so it seems, would rather not have peace than be forced to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. And while many Israelis would not accept a peace deal that acknowledges a Palestinian “right of return” for Palestinian refugees of past wars, many Palestinians would not accept peace if it doesn’t include this right.

To outsiders, these might seem like unreasonable priorities and imprudent choices. But time and again, Israelis and Palestinians have shown they are quite adamant about making these choices, and paying for them dearly, in misery and blood.

We all want peace, and support it, as long as it is peace on our own terms, or at least as long as it comes close to being peace that meets our terms. If such a peace cannot currently be achieved, we — and by “we” I refer to both Israelis and Palestinians — would rather wait.

Mr. Kerry, and numerous other observers, including many Israelis and Palestinians, don’t think that waiting is a good strategy. Hence, they keep suggesting deadlines for talks, and keep speaking forebodingly of a situation that they believe to be “unsustainable,” while warning of doomsday scenarios — the latest of which was Mr. Kerry’s comment about Israel becoming an “apartheid state,” for which he had to apologize.

Surely, there are good reasons for these worries. Delays allow both sides to keep up the battle in an attempt to impose their will on the other side. And as they bicker, bad situations can arise. Violence may erupt, unilateral steps could further complicate any hope for future compromise, and isolation of Israel could become a real threat.

But there is a clear pattern: Whenever the parties negotiate and are required to make a concession, they balk and return to the habit of fighting at the negotiating table. Not because fighting is better than peace, and not because they want to see more violence, and not because they fail to see some obvious truth that only outside mediators can see.

They continue to battle it out because they have priorities other than the ones imagined by the mediator. And the mediator’s inability to imagine and respect that other people might have priorities other than his or her own — a shortcoming that is quite typical of American administrations — is the only true failure of the last nine months.