Try as it may, Israel unable to deter 'Kerry the nudnik'

Why is the US secretary of state so determined to push the peace process forward? And what is behind Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's decision to play along?

January 5, 2014 05:47
US Secretary of State John Kerry and FM Avigdor Liberman

US Secretary of State John Kerry and FM Avigdor Liberman. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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US President Barack Obama is still vacationing in Hawaii, the entire world just finished its countdown to 2014, the prime ministers of Europe are wrapping up two weeks of fun and leisure.

US Secretary of John Kerry, meanwhile, is the only one who made sure to call Israeli and Palestinian officials on each day of his Christmas/New Year’s vacation simply to ask, “What’s up?” Publicly, senior Israeli officials are unanimous in praising Kerry for his “determination, persistence and adherence to his mission,” among other sycophantic terms meant to disguise their fake appreciation.

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Behind closed doors, they say what it is they really think. “We’re dealing with an obsession [by Kerry],” one source said.

“He’s a nudnik (nuisance).”

As former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s health took a turn for the worse, veteran peace negotiators remembered in recent days what Sharon used to say behind closed doors: “On this issue with the Palestinians, if you don’t want to make concessions, you can only do one thing – don’t go in the room.”

Throughout nearly his entire term in office, Sharon avoided going into the room.

Ultimately, though, he did concede – big time – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Sharon was talking about a situation with which many Israeli government officials – from Tzipi Livni to Moshe Ya’alon to Amir Peretz to Naftali Bennett to Yair Lapid to Danny Danon – have become intimately familiar over the years. If the negotiations collapse, regardless of the reason, Israel will be fingered for blame. Period. The simplistic explanation is the rallying cry for the nationalist Right, which sees the international community as “entirely against us” and “everything is anti-Semitism in just a different disguise.”

The more complex explanation holds that Israel is perceived as the stronger, more stable, obstinate party, and the world has had enough of the explanations and excuses over why it must continue to rule over the Palestinians, build in the settlements and refuse to compromise on the territories.

It’s unclear if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu entered the room out of pseudo- appreciation for Kerry’s persistence, or simply because he had no choice and understood that in order to preserve Israel’s real interests, he had to enter the negotiating process, buy himself a year of quiet and demonstrate good will in order to prevent a debacle at the United Nations.

If, however, someone thought that Israel would manage to exhaust Kerry by drowning him in the vicissitudes and minutia of this seemingly insoluble quandary until he threw his hands up in despair, compelling him to find something else to do in the Far East or Africa, as his predecessor Hillary Clinton did before him, they were wrong.

Kerry is here to stay, he’s not letting up, and he wants results in the coming weeks.

“It’s as if we are the most important place in the world,” a senior Israeli official who thinks that Kerry is wasting our time said bitterly. “There are 30 million Kurds who want independence and nobody cares about them. Here, the world is standing on its head over a few hundred thousand Palestinians.”

The response to such a statement is simple enough – it’s politics. Kerry felt compelled to tackle the Palestinian issue after shrewdly examining the matter from a political standpoint. After all, he doesn’t really have anything to lose.

If the talks break down, Kerry, who failed in his bid to unseat the incumbent George W. Bush in the 2004 election and who is married to the heiress of the Heinz family ketchup fortune, won’t need to retire to the private sector to “tend to his home.”

He could take solace in the fact that he was the latest in a long line of highly skilled and accomplished American statesmen who dipped their toes into the muddy Middle Eastern waters and had to return home with their tails between their legs. Before Kerry, there was Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, George Tenet, Anthony Zinni, Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Condoleezza Rice, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and many more.

Kerry walks away virtually unscathed. He could say, “I tried, honestly.” In Europe, they’ll applaud him for his efforts, while it’s not like Americans hold their breath over this issue anyway. On the other hand, if Kerry does succeed, even partially by somehow producing a framework document or a paper of principles that would serve as the basis for a continuation of negotiations, he could expect to be feted, perhaps maybe even earn that coveted Nobel Prize, even if there is no peace treaty forthcoming. And if he really succeeds, Kerry could cast his eyes toward a run at the presidency in 2016.

This is the real reason Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has changed his tune.

He still doesn’t believe it is possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but he has taken a conscious decision not to be the one who trips up the determined Kerry. In his first term as foreign minister, Liberman learned firsthand what it’s like to be the country’s top diplomat who gets the cold shoulder from Washington. He knows that if he wants to exert influence on the process, he needs to be in the game.

Liberman took advantage of his first sitdown with Kerry to lay out his central idea – a population and territorial swap. In other words, if Israel and the Palestinians are going to do a deal, then let’s exchange Wadi Ara for Ariel and Gush Etzion. Kerry did not dismiss Liberman out of hand. On the contrary, the secretary of state saw this as Liberman’s entry ticket into the process.

That doesn’t mean Liberman’s idea is on the negotiations’ agenda, but Kerry did not rule it out. The secretary’s aides understand that within the context of Israel’s political landscape, Liberman is a key player whose approval for any deal would be necessary since it would have the needed right-wing imprimatur. Any formula which would be okayed by Liberman would go a long way toward complicating – perhaps even eliminating – any mutiny from within Likud against Netanyahu.

That’s why Liberman’s pie-in-the-sky idea allows Kerry to bring the foreign minister into the negotiating tent, with the final goal being a historic compromise.

Kerry is coming with ideas for a settlement.

He may even have a letter in his pocket. But he has no intention of presenting it to them. Instead, he wants to warm them up around its ideas.

Kerry won’t put the letter down on the table. Instead, he will present his ideas in long, drawn-out meetings that will be friendly and amiable on the one hand, but probing and exhaustive on the other. Kerry is in the region to test the limits of Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. He wants to see just how far they are willing to go, and how America could help.

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