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When Netanyahu Met Kerry,One Year From Now

Ben Caspit argues that one year from now, on Israel's next Independence Day, the political stagnation and lack of negotiations in the Middle East will still persist.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks with US Secretary of State John Kerry as President Shimon Peres (R) sits beside them during a ceremony marking Israel's annual day of Holocaust remembrance, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem April 8, 2013. Israel on Monday commemorates the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust during World War Two. 

A transcript of the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry, Tuesday, April 15, 2014, Jerusalem:

Netanyahu feels a certain amount of compassion for John Kerry as he gives him the once-over. He is walking a little stooped these days, and he looks much older than he actually is. His hair had grown more gray over the past year than it had in the 10 years prior. In fact, he looks like he’s in pain.

“Welcome, John!” exclaims Netanyahu, feigning pleasure at greeting his guest. “You’re a regular here now. What can I get you to drink? The usual?”

Kerry responds with a languid smile. He has long since learned how to handle the wave of revulsion that overcomes him whenever he meets Netanyahu, and he’s seen him quite a bit over the past year. This is their 23rd meeting since Kerry took over as secretary of state. The New York Times recently reported that he had already broken the all-time record for time spent by secretaries of state in flight. It was the first positive coverage he had received in many long months. During his first year in office, he spent more time in the air than all of his predecessors, including Hillary Clinton, including Henry Kissinger, in fact including everyone else. Most of his flights had brought him right here, to this ill-fated place. In other words, he spent more time in the Middle East in general, and in particular the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, than anywhere else. No wonder he’s about to crack.

“Yeah, the usual,” Kerry tells the prime minister. “Let’s get down to business.”

“What business would that be?” Netanyahu asks. “After all, we agreed that you’d work out a formula that will make us feel like we received Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, while allowing Palestinian President Abu Mazen to feel like he hasn’t given his imprimatur to Israel’s essentially Jewish nature. Your people sent us something last week, but it wasn’t clear enough. We’re discussing it now, as a matter of fact. Naftali Bennett — HaBayit HaYehudi [Jewish Home Party] chairman — doesn’t think it’s suitable. It seems to me that Abu Mazen was just being evasive when he agreed to declare that Palestine will recognize Israel as the place where the Jewish people, among others, are concentrated. We’ll be sending you our proposal for an amended version some time later.”

“I can already see that nothing is going to get past Naftali,” Kerry responds. “So tell me something. What about Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid [Future Party] leader? Does he agree to it? After all, if he agrees, then you’re in business. Bennett can quit if he doesn’t like it. Sorry, Bibi, but you can’t keep telling us that he’ll bring down your government. The Labor Party is willing to join if it means advancing the diplomatic process. You have a majority.”

“Yair who?” Netanyahu responds. “Forget about him, Mr. Secretary. There is no Yair. Trust me on that. He doesn’t even answer my phone calls. He’s in way over his head at the Finance Ministry. The economic decrees he dropped on the public haven’t been good for him. He’s falling in the polls, and it’s driving him crazy. Believe me when I tell you that bringing him into the diplomatic process now is simply impossible. The only thing that interests him now is that he starts going up in the polls and that the stock market goes up with him.”

Kerry sighs. “I’m sorry, Mr. Prime Minister,” he says, “but things just can’t go on like this. You’ve been dragging me along for a year already. We can’t argue over every minor detail in every single paragraph. You have to decide whether you have what it takes to make a historic move and be the one to end the conflict. Either you are or you aren't. I’m begging, and it’s not the first time either. Look me in the eye and tell me the truth. I’ll understand, no matter what you say.”

“What are you talking about, John?” Bibi asks. In his defense, he responds, “Obviously I have what it takes. What can you possibly be thinking? That I don’t understand the reality of the situation? What? That I can’t read a map? I want peace too. I also want to end this conflict. But you have to take the other side into account, John. The other side isn’t ready for anything. They’re not prepared. They have no leadership. There’s no partner there. Just ask former Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Do you want his phone number? We talk all the time. Ask former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Why haven’t they answered Olmert yet? They’re the ones who put everything on hold, not us.”

“Look, Bibi. I don’t have the patience for your blame game anymore,” Kerry replies. “Instead of introducing all sorts of preconditions and artificial obstacles, I suggest that you climb out of your box and announce that you are ready to accept a solution based on the 1967 borders. We will guarantee security arrangements that will address all of your needs. You won’t have anyone to talk to until you do that.”

Netanyahu jumps in with an answer. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for the longest time. There is no one to talk to. But you just keep banging your head against a wall. The Palestinians? Okay, I can deal with that. But look here, Mr. Secretary. I don’t mean to be petty, but you people are still talking to the Iranians, even when the whole world realizes that they’re just playing you for stupid. You saw what happened in North Korea, and you didn’t learn a lesson from it. You keep talking about peace this and peace that, while countries are building nuclear arms at an insane pace. They fire their missiles over Japan, and you’re convinced that it’s raining. I’d take you seriously if you actually did something, if you presented some kind of alternative and showed some determination. But you just keep running in circles with your tail between your legs, not making any progress. Tell me something: What will we do when the day comes — and it will come — when Iran has missiles armed with nuclear warheads? Will we convince Abu Mazen to recognize the fact that Israel is a Jewish state? By then it will be too late. By then it will be a former Jewish state.”

“Now you’re exaggerating,” Kerry says impatiently, “and I think you know it too. The fact of the matter is that you’ve been threatening and warning the world for years, while Iran doesn’t even have nuclear capabilities yet. The fact is that whenever they come within arm’s reach of it, they transfer their 20 percent enriched uranium for some other use and step back. They’re not doing that because they’re Zionists or even because they’re worried about Israel’s threats. They’re doing it because of the United States of America, and because they realize that President Obama is serious.''

“Time is on their side, John,” Netanyahu asserts. “They get a little bit closer every month. They’ll eventually reach a point where they won’t need more than three or four weeks to move full steam ahead toward developing a bomb, and then even you won’t be able to stop them. Maybe you can let that go, but we can’t.”

“It’s such a shame that you don’t get how these two issues are interconnected.” Kerry says, trying another angle. “If you make some progress on the Palestinian conflict, it would be easier to resolve the Iranian crisis. True, you can’t allow yourselves to see a nuclear Iran, but there’s one thing that you can’t allow even more than that. You can’t allow yourselves to be in a situation where we, the United States, throw our hands up and walk away. Believe me, Bibi. You don’t want me to give up.”

“Absolutely not, John! God forbid!” Bibi tries to sweet talk him. “Don’t give up! You have to keep trying! I’ll surprise everyone yet. I’m ready to make painful concessions. As soon as I see that we have a partner, as soon as we are convinced that the Palestinians have come to terms with our presence here and with Israel being a Jewish state, as soon as we verify that it is possible to take big steps forward without compromising our security, you know I’ll be there.”

Kerry responds with another languid smile. By now he can recite from memory all of Netanyahu's catchphrases. He’d been hearing them for the past year, like a broken record. At first he believed them, even though he had been forewarned and even though everyone made him swear that he wouldn’t. He fell into the trap like so many before him, just like former Secretary of State Clinton, like President Shimon Peres, like Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, who resigned a month ago when she realized that everything was stuck, like former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who recently established a thriving investment fund and gave up on Ramallah for good. But he, John Kerry, still chose to believe. I, John Kerry, am the secretary of state of the United States, he reminded himself. I was practically president. I have the backing. I know both sides as well as anybody. I’m determined. I know what to do.

Well, a year has passed, and Kerry doesn’t know what to do anymore. He’s at a loss. Previously, he had written his letter of resignation, and he almost submitted it, but then he filed it away. He had decided to inform the president that the time had come to leave the feuding parties in the Middle East to their own devices, but he eventually decided against it. Today, however, just a few days before Israel celebrates its 66th Independence Day, he is more ready than ever. He can’t squeeze any more juice out of this lemon. It would be best to give up now, before it gets too late.

Suddenly Kerry wakes from his musings and realizes that Netanyahu has been talking the entire time. Kerry nods sadly and goes back to listening mode. He had awoken just in time to hear Bibi’s final statement. “And I declare here now before you, Mr. Secretary, that this is it. We’ve reached the point of no return. The year 2014 must be the ‘Year of Decisions.’ Israel must maintain its right to defend itself by itself. If, by spring, we see that nothing is happening, we will reconsider our next steps. There will not be another Holocaust. I am responsible for the fate of a nation that was almost exterminated once already. I cannot wait any longer. I’m begging you, John. Tell the president that the time has come and that it’s all over. I’m willing to tell him that myself, if he would only agree to meet me one more time. He’ll get chills from the intelligence reports that we intend to show him. …”

Thus ends this fictitious transcript of a discussion that didn’t take place, but might next year, between Netanyahu and Kerry. Anyone who tries to predict two weeks into the future in the crazy region that is the Middle East is a lot like a Shiite suicide bomber. How much more ridiculous is it to try to predict what will happen a year from now? As an Israeli, I had no choice but to sketch this pessimistic scenario. After all, that’s the way we are as Israelis, except for Shimon Peres, of course. And what’s the optimistic scenario? The exact same thing, only the opposite. In any event, no matter what happens, next year will also be declared the Year of Decisions. It’s that obvious. One of the recent characteristics of this region is the worrying excess of decisions that must be made and the dearth of leaders to make them.

Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.

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