John Kerry’s appointment as secretary of state was the best possible news for anyone who hoped to extract the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations from their current deadlock. Kerry is the right man in the right place. It’s only too bad that we can’t add “at the right time,” too, but in the Middle East, it’s never the right time. It’s always too early or too late. There’s always one side that isn’t prepared, ready, or primed to make the changes, gestures, or concessions necessary in order to get somewhere, or at least to start trying to get there. As for the other side, it’s always too late. It always happens after the peace camp has disintegrated, after any trust was shattered, after their proposals were rejected and the right wing parties have come to power.
Kerry’s biggest problem is that he believes he can actually “make history” by solving this conflict. If the talks he has held with senior Israeli officials until now teach us anything, it is that the man is an optimist. He thinks that a permanent agreement is possible. He believes in the feasibility of a solution and contends that it is doubtful whether we will ever have the same opportunity again, so we have to take advantage of it now. By the time Kerry realizes that there is no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict so it simply has to be managed instead, it will already be too late. The diplomatic graveyards in the region are packed with the bodies of Kerry’s predecessors. The one corpse that is still somewhat warm belongs to former US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell, who arrived here with the exact same energy exactly four years ago. He had the backing of President Barack Obama, who was just starting his presidency and who gave Mitchell complete authority to do what he thought was necessary. He received an open ticket, and he built a second American embassy here, with means and emissaries and research and budgets. And yet, he also ended up in that vast, icy wasteland, where generations of peace proponents eventually end up, not before causing enormous damage to the already rickety relationship between the parties.
Based on what we now know, Kerry has no interest in any slapdash intrigues. He wants to enter into real negotiations and come out with a permanent agreement at the end. He is adopting Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni’s approach of starting with security and borders, since these are the least complicated issues. Only after they are resolved can the parties move on to the next stage. We’ve already heard allusions to this approach during Obama’s speech in Jerusalem [March 21]. It was the same plan that the president sketched out in greater detail during his first term, using the 1967 borders as a starting point for territorial swaps and a comprehensive security package that satisfies Israel.
This is a mistake. By the time Kerry realizes that there is no leader in Israel today who can sketch out any border whatsoever that the Palestinians would consider even vaguely reminiscent of something worth talking about … well, by then, his term will be over. Throughout the course of human history, there has never been anyone better than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when it comes to wasting time and eviscerating diplomatic maneuvers. There is trouble in store for anyone who tries to squeeze borders out of him. He is surrounded by Minister of Trade and Industry Naftali Bennett and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and the right wing of his own Likud party will not even deign to consider any Palestinian state whatsoever. Nor is there any political or diplomatic counterbalance that might tip the scales in the opposite direction. Minister of Finance Lapid isn’t ready yet, and Livni is too weak.
Kerry will have to be creative if he is to make progress in the diplomatic process. He will have to create a new template. If he were to map out the Israeli political scene, he would discover that a vast majority of people, in the Knesset but also among the general public, would be willing to consider the “Arab peace initiative” (albeit apprehensively) as a starting point for some new diplomatic process. Using this as a basis, the parties would then be able to work toward some graduated interim agreement, which takes place in modular stages. Yes, it would be very difficult to convince the Palestinians to participate in this kind of undertaking. They find the very term “interim agreement” repulsive. On the other hand, it is not impossible. For one thing, Palestinian President Abu Mazen has no other alternative. Secondly, if Kerry has the perspicacity to wrap this interim agreement in some tantalizing package of guarantees and other incentives, he will be able to get Abu Mazen to go along with it. Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Salam Fayyad has been ready for a long time. He realizes that you can’t just say abracadabra and come up with a solution. Progress must be made in stages. The establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, which receives overwhelming recognition from the international community (and Israel!), and an economic Marshall Plan with support from the other Arab states, would be a game-changer.
In Israel, the primordial fear of a Palestinian state would vanish once it becomes a reality. Israelis will quickly discover that the sun still rises, even after the declaration of an independent Palestine. As for the Palestinians, they will discover the benefits that independence brings, but also that those benefits come with responsibilities. If the security situation is reasonable and both sides realize that the horned demon on their borders really isn’t that bad after all, it will be possible to make progress solving the really difficult problems. It can also be quite safely assumed that by the time that point is reached, Netanyahu will have been relegated to the history books, and the Israeli peace camp will have recovered. In the meantime, Abu Mazen can add “Founder of the Palestinian state” to his resume, and Israel no longer has to shoulder the burden of a costly Occupation. Once the Occupation is resolved, the country will again be deemed legitimate by the international community and it can plan its future at its leisure, from within internationally recognized boundaries.
This plan, unlike a permanent agreement, actually has a chance. All that is necessary is for everyone to recognize that it is the only game in town. Kerry is an imposing politician: experienced, commanding, and charismatic. He is intimately acquainted with all the winding alleyways in this conflict and with the advantages and disadvantages that the various parties have. He also has enormous personal prestige. He was almost president of the United States, so he knows a thing or two about winning support and wielding power. He can bring King Abdullah of Jordan on board too, and turn him into a major player. He might even be able to resuscitate the idea of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, which would help everybody, but especially Israel, swallow the bitter pill. Then Kerry can recruit the Turks, in exchange for a minor role mediating and maintaining contacts between the parties. The Egyptians will go wherever he tells them (in exchange for grain to feed their hungry masses), and the Arab world will cooperate, too. Of course, Kerry will have to assure Abu Mazen (preferably in writing) that the US will not disappear right after an interim agreement is reached. Rather, it will guarantee that negotiations continue, within a reasonable timeframe, until a permanent agreement is reached.
The really hard job will be in Israel. For any of this to happen, the most important ally that Kerry will have to recruit is Yair Lapid. If he were to do a little checking, Kerry would discover that Lapid’s proposal for the diplomatic process is actually quite similar to what has been presented here. It is also based on broad acceptance of the Arab peace initiative, the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, and continued negotiations. For this interim agreement to succeed, Kerry will have to convince the Israelis to transfer more territory to the Palestinians, even if only symbolically, and to establish some reasonable modicum of territorial integrity that will enable them to get rid of the IDF checkpoints once and for all.
Lapid counts former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former director of the Mossad Meir Dagan among his major influences, which means that there is a reasonable chance that he will accept these proposals. But that is still not enough. Even with Tzipi Livni’s backing, the project doesn’t have enough support within Israel’s ruling coalition, so at this point Kerry will have to convince Netanyahu to replace that coalition. To do this, he will need all the power and influence that the US wields. By then, the ultra-Orthodox parties will be drained, worn out and exhausted after spending time in Israel’s brutal opposition. They will be only too glad to return to the government and suck at the teats of power, cost what it may. Now that Kerry will have convinced Netanyahu, along with the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Turks, all he has left to do is to break up the alliance between Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. Let’s see him try.
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.