By the end of this week US Secretary of State John Kerry will have spent more
time in Israel in four months than his predecessor did in the previous four
years, but with just about as little to show for it.
Clinton and her special envoy were trying to launch peace negotiations, Israeli
and Palestinian leaders demonstrated scant interest in even being in the same
room, much less engaging in serious negotiations. The envoy, George Mitchell,
soon quit in frustration.
There’s no sign of substantive change in either
Israeli or Palestinian positions, but there has been a marked improvement in
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s public approach. That can be traced to
Obama’s reelection last November following Netanyahu’s clumsy and politically
risky efforts to prevent it.
Two things dawned on Netanyahu the morning
after: Obama is going to be around for another four years, and his backing is
essential to Netanyahu’s top priority, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear
weapon. So if that means looking like he has converted from hawk to dove, so be
it. It’s really a low-risk game in his view because he’s convinced the
Palestinians won’t test him.
These days Netanyahu the peacenik is saying
all the right things – even offering to sit in a tent halfway between Ramallah
and Jerusalem and “negotiate for as long as it takes” to cut a deal with the
Palestinians – while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sticks with
his uncompromising preconditions and threatens to take Israel to the
International Criminal Court.
Kerry, whose enthusiasm is not matched by
Abbas or Netanyahu, keeps talking about the window of opportunity slamming shut,
but that is a risky game that could encourage the rejectionists to resort to the
kind of violence that in the past brought a bloody halt to any talks showing
promise, or produce the despair and hopelessness that could spark another
After a Likud hardliner, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon,
raised questions about Netanyahu’s support for a two-state solution and said it
couldn’t pass either Netanyahu’s coalition or the Knesset, the prime minister
said he remains committed, but did nothing else. Instead of sacking Danon, as a
strong leader would, he surrendered and reportedly even pulled out an internal
party election later this month rather than face defeat by Danon.
show Israelis support the two-state solution by two-to-one, but they also fear
the Palestinians are not ready to accept a Jewish state next door. That view is
reinforced not just by Hamas’ calls for Israel’s destruction but also by the PA
itself in its media, maps, speeches and diplomacy. And for those like Abbas who
say they want peace, Israelis ask, can they deliver? Palestinians have a similar
question about Netanyahu. He endorsed Palestinian statehood four years ago in
his Bar-Ilan University speech, but can he deliver? He has never written that
pledge into the Likud platform or his coalition agreement.
shown little interest in building a peace constituency on the Right, and his
failure to give the PA the credit it deserves for the progress it has made in
economic development, financial transparency, institution building, government
reform and, most important, security cooperation further undermines the chances
for renewed negotiations and his own claim to support that goal.
finds himself in the familiar position of wanting peace more than the parties
themselves. Abbas clings to his old demands – a settlement freeze, 1967 lines as
reference point for border negotiations, prisoner release – while brushing off
the urgings of the Americans and even his European backers to agree to
unconditional talks. Netanyahu has ratcheted up his talk about Israel’s
willingness to return to the table without preconditions, but he has done little
to show he means it.
Netanyahu seems to believe his more flexible
sounding talk is critical to his effort to stay in Obama’s good graces after
four years of friction, but that is unlikely to impress a president who is
trying to bring a new realism to US foreign policy. Abbas is hanging tough in
the hope that a frustrated Obama will produce a US plan closer to his own views
and pressure Israel to accept it.
That would save Abbas from having to
make any concessions to Israel, and enable him to explain that any compromises
he made were to the big powers. But Obama has made it clear he has little
stomach for pressuring Jerusalem, especially not with the prospects for success
The Palestinian leadership is reportedly worried they are
losing the international sympathy they’ve accumulated while Netanyahu is winning
the PR war by looking like he is ready for peace, while they appear to be
stubborn holdouts. Moreover, Abbas fears accepting unconditional talks will mean
he has surrendered to Netanyahu.
Palestinians need their European patrons
to tell them the hard truths they need to hear, much as the United States has
done for Israel, said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East
Policy. Instead, the EU’s silence has led Abbas to feel he has a free pass and
tells Israelis the deck is stacked against it in the international community, he
The EU message to the PA should be, “The only way to achieve
Palestinian statehood is through direct, unconditional talks with Israel,”
Makovsky said. “The road to statehood runs through peace.”
Netanyahu, there is a similar message. Israeli business leaders have warned him
that the lack of progress toward peace endangers the country’s economic
Kerry has said the absence of peace can lead to Israel’s
“international isolation,” and Bill Clinton said “the two-state approach is
vital to Israel’s survival as a democratic and Jewish state.”
has been called many things, but visionary is not one of them. There is serious
doubt at home and abroad that, his own speeches notwithstanding, he is capable
of leading the nation to peace. If his actions do not match his new rhetoric, he
jeopardizes a critical relationship with the only ally who can help Israel avert
the nightmare of a nuclear Iran.