U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s ambitions have run into the bitter reality of Middle East politics. After hitting the latest wall in his effort to forge a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, Kerry announced that “it is reality check time” for whether negotiations can succeed.
Kerry is righly frustrated, given the obstinacy of the two parties for which he is trying to mediate. If they do not want peace and are not prepared to work to achieve it, then there is little Kerry, or the United States — or anyone — can do.
Since replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state a little over a year ago, Kerry has focused on the Middle East. Many believe that he sees a peace deal as the cap of his political career. The energy he has invested in that project suggests that the speculation is correct: He has made more than a dozen trips to the region since taking office, and twice detoured around his tour of Europe to handle recent difficulties.
The latest round of talks began nine months ago after a three-year break, with a series of meetings designed to build trust and confidence. One of the results was an agreement by Israel to release over 100 Palestinian prisoners.
Last week the fragile process broke down when Israel refused to release the last 26 prisoners unless Palestinians agreed to continue negotiating beyond the original April 29 deadline, and announced public tenders for 700 apartments in East Jerusalem. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed applications to join 15 international treaties, reneging on his promise that Palestine would not take the unilateral path toward international recognition, a process that he suspended when the talks resumed last summer.
In an attempt to salvage the talks, Kerry pressed Israeli to release the last 26 prisoners, as well as 400 others to be selected by Palestinian authorities, and slow the construction of settlements outside Eat Jerusalem. In exchange, the Palestinians would not pursue their statehood bid unilaterally and agree to extend the talks into 2015. In addition, Kerry has reportedly offered Israel the release of Jonathan Pollard, a spy for Israel who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 1985.
The Pollard offer is both original and controversial. Every Israeli government has pleaded for Pollard’s release and every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has refused to make that gesture. Kerry is betting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eager to gain credit for Pollard’s release. Pollard, up for parole next year, is reported ill. Some reckon that he will be released on health grounds and this is one way of getting something from Israel. Many in the U.S. intelligence community vehemently oppose any clemency for him and most analysts doubt that it will influence Netanyahu’s thinking.
Kerry has called for a time out while all three sides evaluate their options. All have declared their commitment to the peace process. Israelis say their refusal to release the prisoners was a response to Palestinian obstinacy, omitting the fact that the Palestinians had adhered to all agreements. Palestinian officials say Abbas did not intend to sabotage the negotiations with his move, but merely sought to draw attention to Israeli behavior. Israeli officials counter that the escalating list of Palestinian demands — including the lifting of a blockade on the Gaza Strip and freeing high-profile prisoners — suggests that Palestinians are not serious about negotiating .
Kerry has said that the U.S. is going to re-evaluate its role as mediator. Washington is right to do so. There are many other crises in the world that demand Kerry’s time and attention. The U.S. cannot want a deal more than the parties to the negotiation. Neither Israel nor Palestine should think that the U.S. will do the work for them. Both must be ready to strike a deal and that means making the compromises that are necessary to find common ground. Both sides must feel some pain.
At the same time, however, they also believe that the U.S. cannot afford to just walk away from the talks. Kerry has invested too much of his time and prestige in this effort. A decision to turn his back would look like yet another show of U.S. fecklessness, and a lack of determination and commitment.
The world cannot afford the likely conflicts that would follow from another failed round of talks. Last week, Palestinians fired rockets at Israel, which replied with air attacks on military targets in the Gaza Strip. Some believe that another intifada — the last of which produced thousands of deaths — could result if talks break off.
The risk of yet more violence is probably the best spur to negotiations. Netanyahu and his supporters may believe that they can inflict more pain on the Palestinians than they will have to suffer, but that is no recipe for enduring peace. It is indeed time for a reality check.
Both Israelis and Palestinians should assess their dwindling options and acknowledge that a negotiated settlement is much better than their unilateral options.