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Kerry may be ready for his Jim Baker moment

The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement now allows both parties to say “I told you so” and move into the post-peace process era, with all its consequences.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boards his plane to leave Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca for a return to the United States April 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool (MOROCCO - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3K0J3

By the standards of the parallel universe inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians, April 23 was a good day. Everyone now feels vindicated, self-righteous, sanctimonious and in their comfort zone, with leadership and statesmanship reduced to saying "I told you so."

"I told you so," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will say: Hamas will take over the West Bank, the Palestinians don't really want a two-state solution, how can we negotiate? They are deceitful. They want a state without negotiating.

"I told you so," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will say: Netanyahu was never serious, refused to show a map delineating the borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state, never stopped building in the settlements. Israel doesn't really want a two-state solution like we do. They are deceitful. They want to negotiate without a state. How can we negotiate this way?

The announcement on April 23 by the Palestinians on signing "a historic" unity deal between Fatah and Hamas — eventually leading to elections in six months — and the predictable ensuing statement by Israel that if this indeed is the case, then "peace negotiations can no longer continue," was a reaffirmation of how far apart the sides are and how far they would go to prove US Secretary of State John Kerry wrong.

The United States already asked the Palestinians for clarification, but it also knows that no clarification or assuaging explanation will turn this process into anything more than the charade it was.

In this regard, Kerry, too, can easily say "I told you so," highlighting and capitalizing on his recent frustrations with both sides.

For Netanyahu, the agreement is a blessing in disguise: It absolves him of the need to keep on pretending he is negotiating and possibly prevents a coalition crisis in the next few months.

Unless, of course, Netanyahu would use this as a rallying call for early elections to confront the "clear and present danger" posed by the Palestinians and deflect international pressure blaming Israel for the impasse. In Netanyahu's mind, it will validate everything he suspected about the Palestinians, enable him to portray himself domestically as if he always wanted a real peace process and was actually dedicated to the two-state model but, alas, the Palestinians pushed the self-destruct button again, as they habitually do.

But what really happened on April 23 to US foreign policy?

Following a few months of making his life miserable, Israel and the Palestinians made it abundantly clear to Kerry: You can't beat us. You thought you could, but you're living in lala land. Your services are no longer required.

Let's assume that Kerry is really tired and weary of the endless exercise in futility called "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process" and the toll it exacts on him and on the United States, and that Wednesday's statements reinforce this notion.

Let's assume, for the sake of conversation, that Kerry is fed up with being insulted, dismissed, his reputation tarnished and his credentials questioned by both Israel and the Palestinians.

Let's then assume that Kerry endorses the increasingly prevalent argument that with US energy independence just around the corner in 2018, the Arab world in uncertainty, turmoil and decay, the Iranian nuclear issue on the verge of a diplomatic solution, US interests in the Middle East may still be considered important but are no longer paramount or critical.

Let's further assume that Kerry shifts emphasis to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis and resets, or "pivots," US foreign policy priorities to the Far East, two insignificant mini-theaters compared with the West Bank.

Let's finally assume that Kerry realizes that there are plainly no crucial US interests to be protected or gained by further intermediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

If all these assumptions materialize, irrespective of what transpired on April 23, then Kerry may pull a James Baker: tell both Israel and the Palestinians to "Call me when you're serious," as Baker famously did in 1991. He would probably be more careful than Baker and give out the State Department's number rather than the White House's, because Kerry knows all too well that the above assumptions already apply to a fatigued, scarred, agitated and disinterested President Barack Obama.

Kerry flirted with a "James Baker" moment two weeks ago but restrained himself, clarified his "plague on both your houses" tone and amicably suggested that the good services of the United States are still at the parties' disposal if they choose to use them.

Yet, the last several days of gung-ho statements by both sides and then Wednesday's Palestinian announcement surely further deflates Kerry's ambition and dents his optimism.

Compared with the challenges posed by Russia and China, the Israeli-Palestinian issue seems like an energy-draining indulgence or a decades-long hobby that the United States could do without. This may be bad news for Israelis and Palestinians — even if they don't quite understand how bad — and it would take a major effort from them to convince the United States to change course and remain engaged.

If Kerry does a James Baker and the United States effectively ceases to play a very active role in the Israeli-Palestinian process, there will be consequences on two levels. First, a recalibration of US policy will in time impact the US-Israeli alliance. Second, such a development may have immediate political repercussions inside Israel.

The key to predicting these repercussions is the context and pretext in which the United States withdraws from active mediation. If Kerry elaborates on why he is busy elsewhere and blames both Israel and the Palestinians for an intractable impasse, either Justice Minister Tzipi Livni or Finance Minister Yair Lapid may withdraw from the government. A second scenario is that Kerry, either directly or through a selective leak of "closed-room deliberations," blames Israel and blasts Netanyahu. A third would be just staying away and letting the Palestinian dynamic play out.

Given the diminished interest the United States has in the Middle East, in addition to the congressional mid-term elections and the Palestinian statement on Wednesday, it is unlikely that the United States will say anything incriminating or about Israel. What's the point? Even the idea that the administration publish its parameters of what it views as a final status agreement is now of questionable utility given the Palestinian move.

All this leaves Netanyahu relieved, and it is likely to keep the coalition intact but propel him to seek new elections asking for a "renewed mandate" to deal with "the crisis."

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