John Kerry: a ‘magnificent’ U.S. secretary of state

by Gwynne Dyer

John Kerry has been U.S. secretary of state for one year, and he has already (1) rescued President Barack Obama from his ill-considered promise to bomb Syria if it crossed the “red line” and used poison gas; (2) opened serious negotiations with Iran on its alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons; and (3) taken on the job of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Getting Obama off the hook was useful, and may yet lead to the United States ending its support for the insurgency in Syria, which at this point would probably be the least bad outcome. Opening negotiations with Iran was long overdue, and makes the nightmare prospect of an American or a joint U.S.-Israeli air attack on Iran daily less likely. But even King Solomon and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), sitting jointly in judgment on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could not broker a peace accord there.

Kerry is indefatigable. He has been to Israel/Palestine 11 times in the past year, and spent as much as a hundred hours face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or their close advisers. Unlike all the previous “brokers,” he has been astoundingly discreet: not a hint of what has been said in private has leaked into the public domain. And yet there is almost no hope of a real peace deal.

If persistence in the face of all the odds were enough, Kerry would be the man who finally made it happen. (Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon recently complained that his approach is “obsessive and messianic.”) But Kerry has no leverage: He has to rely on the desire of the two leaders to make the “peace process” work, and it just isn’t there; not, at least, on any terms that both would find acceptable.

The list of deal-breakers includes almost every topic under discussion: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, whether Jerusalem can be the joint capital of Israel and Palestine, whether Israel can maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes, and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize it as an explicitly Jewish state.

This last demand, which was only raised in the past couple of years, seems deliberately designed to be unacceptable to the Palestinians. Not only are they required to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state (which they have already done), but also to give their blessing to the ethnic and religious character of that state.

It is not normal in diplomacy for one state to comment upon the internal arrangements of another, let alone to give them its public support. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally and supporter, does not officially recognize it as a “Jewish state.” The Israeli demand is an attempt to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their defeat, and why would you set out to do that if you really wanted a deal?

The Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” however rooted in natural justice, is equally self-defeating in practice. Everybody knows that a peace deal must mean compensation for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, not a general right of return to what is now Israel, for that really would mean the end of the “Jewish state.” But no Palestinian leader has ever dared to say so out loud.

So why, then, has Kerry embarked on his quixotic mission to make the “peace process” work? It has been effectively dead for at least a dozen years, although it remains unburied because the pretense that it is still alive allows everybody to avoid hard decisions. But Kerry, with his nine-month deadline to achieve a comprehensive “final-status agreement” (which expires in April), is taking it seriously.

His own explanation is lyrical but opaque: “I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” But the business about “making history” — that, perhaps, is sincere. Kerry has had a long and interesting career as a senator, and even took a shot at the presidency, but this is probably his last big job, and he wants to make his mark.

As the reality of what he is up against strikes home, he has scaled back his ambitions a good deal. For some months now he has been talking about a more modest “framework” deal by April that would establish a set of basic principles for further talks. Such deals commit nobody to anything, and are therefore a popular way of pretending to make progress, but he’ll be lucky to get even that.

French Gen. Pierre Bosquet, watching the suicidal charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854, said: “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It’s madness.” Kerry’s foredoomed quest for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is magnificent too, in its own peculiar way, but it’s not diplomacy. It’s hubris.

Independent journalist Gwynne Dyer’s articles are published in 45 countries.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Another interesting article on this crisis, which has far reaching consequences.

    It’s a little disappointing to see Kerry’s efforts cynically dismissed as “hubris” in the closing sentence, however.

    Dyer points to two intractable issues, that of the unreasonable demand for sanction of a “Jewish State”, and the implausibility of Israel recognizing the right of return for the Palestinians that were basically forced out of the “Jewish State”.

    Political modernization, ie., representative government, precludes theocracy, as reason is that which holds precedence in the decision making process, which is collective and based on equality before the law and the freedom of expression.

    In other words, democracy and theocracy are incompatible due to inherent contradictions.

    Secretary of State George Marshall had been working on a modern political solution to the former British Mandate of Palestine in the United Nations. That effort was derailed, resulting in the present scenario.

    Secretary of State Kerry has to do what he can to reestablish conditions that will make it possible to resurrect the efforts of Marshall et al. and bring about a modern political state–or two–in what has become of the former British Mandate of Palestine: the “Jewish State” of Israel and the “State” of Palestine.

    Secretary of State Kerry has humbly warned the Israeli government of mounting sentiment toward a boycott of the “Jewish State” of Israel.

    Dyer further seems to express the opinion that nothing at all can be done about the problem, which, to repeat, has far reaching consequences. European states have recently demonstrated that such is not the case, and a treatment of the “Jewish State” of Israel like the Apartheid era state of South Africa will effect a solution completely different than the so-called “two-state” solution.

    The way I see it is that the “two-state” solution can only work if there is a demonstration of good faith all around. That does not seem to be the case, on any account.

    If Kerry’s diplomacy fails to pave he way for a viable “two-state” solution, that is the end of the “two-state” solution. Where’s the hubris?

  • zer0_0zor0

    Apparently the Ottoman’s had a pretty fair grasp of how to manage the three-faiths nexus of Jerusalem, but that was brought to an end when? Was it with the British Mandate?

    Obama’s declaration of the 1967 borders as a starting part is reasonable, if the Israeli government would agree to that, the Palestinians would likely be open to compromise on many other contentious issues.

    Still, the underlying problem of how the political dynamic would work out even if a two-state solution were to be successfully implemented is not something that anyone an see in their crystal ball. With international guarantees of security and territorial integrity, one aspect of the problem could be solved. But the other aspect, that is, of popular democracy, is bound to become an issue in any solution that involved a “Jewish State” of Israel or even a “Muslim State” of Palestine, for that matter.

    Point in fact, look at Syria, where the West is basically supporting the Sunni cause because they represent a majority of the population. Assad has not asked for an “Alewaite State” of Syria, just security for his and other religious minorities.

    You are probably right to point to a long existing conflict, but perhaps it goes further back than 1500 years.

    Meanwhile, since you have leveled accusations at the Palestinians, what is your stance on the recent calls by Israeli Housing and Construction Minister to establish a “third temple” on the Temple Mount. http://www.timesofisrael.com/minister-calls-for-third-temple-to-be-built/