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Kerry’s Shuttle Diplomacy Without a Map

John Kerry has launched his shuttle diplomacy, with previous benchmarks such as the Clinton Parameters of 2000 and the Olmert-Abbas understanding of 2008 all but forgotten or ignored, writes Alon Pinkas.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks during his meeting with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Paul J. Richards/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTXYEIP

Unsurprisingly, it didn't take Israelis and Palestinians long before they declared with conviction that US Secretary of State John Kerry's first "shuttle" trip to the region failed. Conditions are "unacceptable" and the "obstacles are too big." And this is before either was asked to do the fundamentally reasonable thing: compare maps delineating the two-state model.

Welcome to the wonderful, bizarre, smoke-and-mirrors world of Middle East peace making, Mr. Secretary. Get used to it; it won't get better.

Kerry had barely left the region en route to China to focus on the brewing North Korea crisis, and a chorus of Israelis and Palestinians knew for a fact that many of his suggestions, ideas and policy options were non-starters. Been there, never done that.

To a degree, they are tragically right. After all, if the Clinton Parameters of Camp David 2000, enunciated by former US president Bill Clinton in January 2001 or the Olmert-Abbas understandings of 2008 are not enough, how can anything Kerry proposes or discusses be acceptable? Israel, under the current government, would like to ignore both sets of principles governing a final status deal. The Palestinians cannot endorse this, since the accords are, in their perception, solid terms of reference.

The Palestinians, after refusing the Camp David deal, demand to go farther than Olmert-Abbas. This is unacceptable to Israel not only because of the predominant right-wing nature of the government or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's distaste for and suspicion of the two-state solution, but also and primarily because Hamas, and not the Palestinian Authority, controls Gaza.

Given these two irreconcilable approaches it is almost impossible to imagine a grand deal. Israelis and Palestinians love to shoot down ideas and policy prescriptions because both have developed a political culture of "No, we can't." They are experts on why things cannot be done, why ideas are not ripe, why the timing is wrong and why domestic political constraints override decision making.

One thing that Israel and the Palestinians always agree on is that all the failures, shortcomings and impasses are America's fault.

But Kerry is ostensibly engaged and even optimistic that some form of a process with tangible and achievable short-term goals can be launched despite reluctance on both sides, political instability and upheaval in the Palestinian Authority and a patently right-wing government in Israel.

Kerry reportedly indicated two important time frames for how he envisions progress: He will travel to the region every several weeks and aim for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian mini-summit in the upcoming weeks, perhaps with indirect involvement by Turkey. Aside from talking peace process, this is also a potent coalition of actors that are very concerned about developments in Syria.

Secondly, he has allotted a six-month period to decide whether sufficient common ground has been reached to warrant presidential involvement. If there are positive indications, Kerry will then approach US President Barack Obama and seek his commitment.

Herein lies the key question: how involved will Obama become? Will he be convinced that a deal can be reached and craft a presidential initiative, or will he allow Kerry to play peace-maker and remain focused on the more pressing foreign-policy priorities in east Asia, not to mention his domestic agenda?

While in Israel, Kerry was advised by a well-seasoned and very experienced Israeli official to "be intense and intensive" in conducting this endeavor. He was told that if he allows too much time between trips and talks, and if he is limited to or content with periodic but hollow press statements about how "encouraged" he is, how "constructive" negotiations were or how "gaps have been considerably narrowed," the sides will construe this as an exercise in futility and conclude that the president isn't really on board. They will then gladly revert to what they do best: blame the US.

If Kerry fails because he is so hindered, it may be well into the next president's term, circa 2018 when the US re-engages the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. By 2018, another development may affect US policy: At that point, the US will be very close to attaining total energy independence, certainly from Middle Eastern oil. Israel and the Palestinians, with all their grievances, justifiable apprehensions and past peace-process meltdowns must take this into account or pay a very high price.

It should be clear by now to any observer of this conflict and conflict-resolution saga that left to their own devices, at this point in history, Israel and the Palestinians are eminently incapable of reaching a deal through bilateral negotiations. The level of distrust, disillusionment and suspicion is just too high. Furthermore, and beyond the empty rhetoric of "our hand is extended and we will take risks for peace," both have developed a mirror-image posture based on a disincentive to reach a deal. The stakes are too high, the intangibles too many and the political cost too expensive.

In six months or so, Kerry may conclude that if time is not of the essence to Israel and the Palestinians, then surely wasting time is of the utmost essence for him personally and for US foreign policy in general.

Until then, Kerry will presumably try to work out a paradigm shift, a process that is phased, but with an end result that is clear and agreeable. This may be a provisional (demilitarized) Palestinian state on, say, 60% of the West Bank, backed by a Security Council resolution that contains mutual recognition. The Palestinians would recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and Israel would recognize the state of Palestine, whose final borders will be demarcated within five years. Jerusalem and refugees will be dealt with at a later stage. In order to achieve this, Kerry will need Saudi, Jordanian and even Egyptian backing.

Ideally, this will be a re-written chapter in a new version of the Arab League Plan (aka "The Saudi Plan"). Kerry will have to ask both sides to "show him the map" and demonstrate how serious they are.

This is a precarious tipping point. Neither side can conceivably agree to the other's map. Israel will have to dismantle settlements, not just illegal outposts, or pledge to do so within the five year period. A Netanyahu-led government will not do this. The Palestinians will have to be content with a mini-state, defer "core" issues and pledge to extend their rule to Gaza. They cannot do so.

Kerry's most important mission is to create a positive momentum to somewhat balance the current regional instability. A momentum designed to incrementally and gradually, but visibly, forge a Sunni-Israeli — yes, that's right — axis, with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Jordan, the Palestinians, Turkey and even Egypt in the background.

They may not have a lot in common, but they have a common fear of an Iranian-led Shiite arc. Such an idea may (and should) seem far-fetched, given the rise of radical Sunni Salafism which threatens Syria and the region.

When Kerry tires of his shuttle diplomacy, his best bet may instead be to send Dennis Rodman, fresh from his public-relations stunt in North Korea, who will at least have the capacity to shock and entertain while taking on a hopeless cause.

Ambassador Alon Pinkas was Israel's consul general in New York, adviser to Shimon Peres and chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).

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