NEW YORK – It’s a testament to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s grit, determination and self-assurance that he refuses to give up in his quest to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. But I wish that he would, during the long slog toward renewed talks, ask himself one question: Why didn’t his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, apply herself to the problem in the same manner?
Certainly, Clinton possesses the same qualities of fortitude and indefatigability. No one is more tenacious than she when she identifies a goal worth pursuing. So why did she resolutely avoid this issue? The answer is simple: She saw no reasonable chance for success, even success modestly defined.
The goal Kerry has in mind — getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together for direct talks about the most divisive issues — won’t be achieved. Both the Palestinians and Israelis know that Kerry’s proposed negotiations won’t work, but neither party wants to upset Kerry by saying so, and neither wants to be perceived as uninterested in compromise. So they may meet, and then maybe they will meet again and maybe they will even meet after that. But peace, and a Palestinian state that would be the byproduct of peace, won’t happen, not now and not in the foreseeable future.
I wish this all weren’t true. Peace for Israel and a state for the Palestinians are goals worth achieving. Reaching these goals won’t change the Middle East as much as Kerry thinks it will, but I’ll address this particular delusion of the American foreign-policy elite another time. (I already have, come to think of it, in this column.)
The delusion at hand is that Kerry will succeed where numerous secretaries of state have failed, and succeed in what might be the most inauspicious moment in years to start new negotiations: The Middle East is erupting all around Israel, which makes even centrist and some left-leaning Israelis fear the idea of tangible territorial concessions; the Palestinian Authority is weaker than ever; the two territories that would make up the future state of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) are divided between the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas and the more moderate Fatah; and the Israeli Cabinet is under the de facto control of the settlement movement, which continues to expand its holdings on the West Bank.
But maybe I’m just a cynic. I called Ari Shavit, Israel’s leading columnist and a man who very much wants to see a Palestinian state created on the West Bank, to ask him if my bleakness was unjustified. “I’m just this moment putting the Champagne bottles in the fridge,” he said. “I expect to open them shortly. We’re all going to have special permission from the Muslim Brotherhood to drink Champagne.”
Shavit’s withering sarcasm wasn’t matched by contempt for Kerry, though. Like many Israelis, Shavit has a strange kind of respect for Kerry’s quixotic efforts: “Kerry is a decent, noble American trying to bring peace to a tormented land and a troubled region, and I salute him for his benign intentions and commitment and energy.
“That said, I think this good will and energy and political capital is being invested in a course of action that resembles too much the previous attempts that have failed. I think the right approach is to learn from the failures of the past and to do something practical that relates to the realities on the ground rather than reach for something that is totally unrealistic. There is no serious Israeli or Palestinian who thinks that the Kerry approach would work.”
So if the idea of bringing Netanyahu and Abbas together to talk about the largest issues is a bad idea, what constitutes a good idea? “Modest ideas,” Shavit said, modest ideas that may lead to less modest ideas.
That means a different approach, undertaking one set of negotiations between the U.S. and Israel, and another between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority. Each side could take a few steps separately that would lay the groundwork for eventually having direct talks about the actual issues separating them: the future of Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish settlements, a solution for Palestinian refugees and borders for the future state of Palestine. Shavit argues that this strategy would shift the discussion away from the dangerous binary of all or nothing at all.
To the Israelis, Kerry should be asking for a freeze in the expansion of settlements beyond Israel’s security barrier. These far-flung communities are home to a small minority of settlers, but their growth signals to Palestinians like nothing else that Israel means to continue occupying the whole of the West Bank. A majority of Israelis would agree to a freeze, and Palestinians would interpret it as a sign that Israel might be considering territorial compromise. And Kerry would have a powerful argument behind him, one most Israelis understand: Continued expansion outside the main settlement blocs, and on the far side of the security barrier, threatens Israel’s democracy and its Jewish character. The settlements entangle Israel to a dangerous degree in the lives of Palestinians.
To the Palestinians, Kerry should be arguing for a return to “Fayyadism,” the technocratic approach to state-building championed by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Israelis would interpret a return to Fayyadism as a sign the Palestinians were serious about building a state with legitimate and organized institutions, rather than the sort of Palestinian state Israelis fear: corrupt, dysfunctional and a launching pad for attacks.
If Israel were to make a limited gesture on settlements to the Palestinians, and if the Palestinian Authority would make a sincere effort to return to technocracy, then it might be worth trying to bring Netanyahu and Abbas together.
Right now, though, there’s no point. One day soon, Kerry will understand why.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.