John Kerry and a Palestinian state

You may have come upon headlines describing recent talks between American Secretary of State John Kerry, the Israelis and Palestinians as "very constructive," with Kerry upbeat about the prospects of continued progress.

Ha''aretz is not on the same wave. The lead article in Thursday''s Internet edition begins with, "Israel rejects Kerry''s gestures to renew negotiations with Palestinians."

Referring to "a senior Israeli official who was involved in the talks," the item indicates that while Kerry began his mission with great personal enthusiasm and expectations, and applied heavy pressure on the participants, he failed to comprehend the depth of the problems.

Israel rejected his demand to begin with a discussion of boundaries, and gestures including the release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel has said time and again that beginning with boundaries would put it in a position of Palestinians claiming that boundaries had been settled, without agreeing to matters of refugees, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and ultimately accepting that the conflict had come to an end without further claims.

The matter of releasing prisoners fits with the current emphasis of Palestinians, but overlooks the point that many of those who the Palestinians and now Kerry wants released committed crimes that would justify the death penalty in most American states.

Palestinians and perhaps Kerry view those individuals as "prisoners of war" who ought to be released as part of accommodations between the parties. However, most are in prison for killing civilians, and were not taken prisoner as a result of combat with Israeli soldiers.

The Ha''aretz article also notes that while Kerry has claimed agreement on some concessions, Israeli sources assert that details have not been finalized.

Involved here is a general fatigue of "gestures" to Palestinians in order to get them to the table. Israel has done that, most notably in a construction freeze of some 10 months. Israeli gestures have not brought forth gestures from the Palestinians, or even a willingness to begin negotiations.

The blame game is beside the point. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis are ready for serious concessions. It is only the Americans who perceive opportunities. John Kerry is the most recent Secretary of State who has come to the Holy Land with a mission. Hillary Clinton was here before him, and Condolezza Rice before her.

Europeans say "Amen" to American efforts. We don''t know what they really expect. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis are in the same church.

The parameters that the Americans do not comprehend, or do not weigh appropriately, are:

•The splits within the Palestinian community and leaderships, with many unreconciled to Israel''s existence, and others unable or unwilling to control the rejectionists.

•Israeli distrust of Palestinian intentions, created by decades of violence against civilians, rejections of offers (without making counter-proposals) by Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and the violent response to the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza. The Gaza experience is a severe problem for Israelis or others who propose large scale withdrawals of settlements in the West Bank.

Henry Kissinger succeeded in negotiations involving Israel. However, he had the advantage of dealing with three states (Israel, Egypt, and Syria) capable of imposing discipline on dissidents once the leaders had reached agreement.

Palestine is not a state, its leaders lack the discipline of a state, and they have stumbled over their internal problems when the prospects for achieving a state appeared to be ripe.

Israel created a state from a non-state, but that was against the background of the Holocaust as well as three decades of operating a quasi-state in the context of the British Mandate. There was bloodshed between factions contending for control, but those contenders accommodated themselves to one another. Bitterness between them remained for years, and continues among some of the oldtimers and their descendants.

So far, Palestinian factions lack the will or capacity to accommodate themselves to one another, or to Israel.

We hear that the American State Department is congenitally pro-Arab, that John Kerry is superficial and an egoist in business for himself, and that Barack Obama will exploit his second-term independence to impose draconian pressures on Israel.

All that may be true, but the world and Israeli-American relations are sufficiently complicated to retard abject pessimism. Relevant are too many other governments, too many individuals and interests with influence within Israel and the United States, and too many scenarios possible about what will happen here, there, and elsewhere. Potential conception-breakers include Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria. One or another, or all of them may develop in ways to turn obvious expectations on their heads.

Each of those trouble spots is relevant for Israel-American relations. Such other items of business work against the prospect of Americans elevating any one issue, like Palestine, so high on their agenda as to risk the failure of cooperation on other matters.

Commentators should avoid the temptation to predict in the context of so many unpredictables, enjoy the leisure of explaining what has already happened, and pity those poor benighted souls who have reached positions of responsibility and have to make decisions