For Zion's Sake: The secretary’s new clothes

Kerry should concentrate his energy, US attention where they might do some good instead of compounding peace efforts with another US failure.

June 11, 2013 22:23
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Netanyahu, March 20, 2013.

John Kerry in Israel 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)

Someone better tell US Secretary of State John Kerry about his new clothes. That allusion may be overused, but when was there last such a high-ranking politician who pursued so ambitious a policy, parading it before all the world, while just about everyone watching knew he would fail? With most other grandiose political efforts at least some segment of the public believes success is possible, or that the official line is indeed correct. Not so with Kerry’s inexplicably frantic push for peace.

Newspaper headlines question whether Kerry is a “lone ranger.”

He is said to lack both “buy-in” and faith from Israelis and Palestinians alike. Haaretz characterized Kerry as trying to “push [a] stone up the hill,” a metaphor that may have been more apt for the peace process then the editor realized: It derives from the Greek myth of Sisyphus being cursed to push a boulder up a hill in Hades. Upon reaching the top, the giant rock falls back to the bottom and Sisyphus must repeat the process for eternity.

Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been mostly cool to Kerry’s efforts and a large portion of his coalition opposes the two-state solution as such. Most Israelis, as Kerry lamented, are busy enjoying Israel’s relative economic strength and the quiet secured by the IDF, and are more concerned with domestic issues.

For their part, the Palestinians refuse to negotiate and are busy blaming Israel for it. As should have been expected, they have taken Kerry’s efforts as an opportunity to create such a lengthy list of preconditions it is unclear what issues they expect to deal with in actual negotiations.

Perhaps the party whose buy-in is most noticeably absent, however, is Kerry’s boss, President Barack Obama.

Almost every recent peace plan has carried the personal mark of the president of the United States.

And typically he has had some reason to believe his investment would pay off.

For presidents Carter and Clinton, the parties to the conflict had initiated the process. Both presidents Bush had just demonstrated the extent of American might in the region and had neutralized a top fomenter of regional instability.

President George W. Bush’s second- term efforts also came after Israel’s Disengagement, and he had Israel’s trust and an eager Israeli prime minister telling him a peace agreement could be reached.

President Obama, who came into office intending to make Israeli- Palestinian peace a top priority, was riding a wave of global popularity.

His conciliatory tone to the Muslim world was thought to have garnered him some credibility and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the express purpose of encouraging him to pursue peace.

He also had a team of heavy hitters – his secretary of state, vice president, chief of staff, and special envoy – ready to pressure Israel with demands firm enough to sound like threats.

But even Obama lost hope and during his recent visit to Israel he almost left the peace process off the agenda. His remarks on the necessity of peace in Jerusalem bore the mark of a man who has been defeated but insists on having the last word – and even that included an admission that peace was unlikely.

When Obama spoke in Ramallah, he referred to Kerry’s upcoming efforts distantly, as though they were Kerry’s independent initiative, saying, “And I know that Secretary of State John Kerry intends to spend significant time, effort, and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties.”

Even if Kerry is following Obama’s orders, the fact that Obama has subcontracted to Kerry what he himself once pursued so vigorously is an indication of how Obama assesses the chances for success.

Beyond Obama’s apparent disengagement from the process, the region has changed drastically for the worse. Once reliable Egypt is now ruled by anti-Israel parties.

Syria is in the throes of civil war. It is feared that even Jordan may be susceptible to revolution. And even before the “Arab Spring,” Hezbollah was entrenched in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. More than ever before there is reason to believe signing a peace agreement cannot yield peace.

So with Obama divested of the peace process, circumstances particularly ill-suited for peace, and more obviously pressing issues like the Syrian civil war looming, why is Kerry so completely immersing himself in reviving negotiations? What makes him think he’ll succeed where Obama failed? The preposterousness of Kerry’s efforts begs the question of whether Kerry himself believes he can succeed. One might be led to believe it’s just some kind of sideshow to distract from some other policy.

But it’s not, as Kerry displayed the extent of his sincerity with his impassioned speech at the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum. There he pleaded with the audience to use their influence to get Israel to the negotiating table and to not let the figurative door “literally” slam shut on the peace process. In the face of the new regional landscape and understandable skepticism, Kerry declared that he nevertheless “firmly believe[s] that this is a hopeful time, if we choose to make it so.” It is just too hard to fake such naïveté.

That naïveté comes at a particularly dangerous time. The scaling back of the war on terror while al- Qaida rises anew, the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure to anticipate the “Arab Spring” and the late-in-the-game dumping of ally Hosni Mubarak, and the lynching of the American ambassador in Benghazi have all signaled a decline in US influence in the region.

Beyond that US policy on Syria is indecisive, despite the growing death toll and evidence of chemical weapons use by Bashar Assad.

That indecision is understandable given the Islamist nature of the rebel forces, but the president has already committed the US to a side by calling on Assad to step down and having assisted in supplying the rebels with arms.

At the same time Russia has made it clear that it will back Assad by providing weapons like the S- 300 anti-aircraft system meant to deter Western intervention. That the tide seems to be turning in Assad’s favor means that for the first time in decades Russian arms might be said to be beating American arms.

If they did, that would be a significant blow to US prestige, at a time when US global leadership is increasingly challenged.

With US influence spiraling downwards and the Hezbollah- Assad-Iran alliance believing itself immune from attack, Hezbollah will be emboldened in igniting another round of conflict with Israel while Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

So while Kerry’s efforts may be laughable, for all of our sakes someone ought to let him in on the joke, so he can concentrate his energy and US attention where they might do some good instead of compounding the problem with another US failure.

The author is an attorney and a Likud central committee member.

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