NEW YORK - John Kerry is waiting for Benjamin Netanyahu to nail himself to a very large cross. Unfortunately you’re going to have to keep reading to find out what I mean by this. First, consider here the four assumptions about the Middle East peace process:
• It’s dead.
• John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, is the Captain Ahab of the two-state solution, a vainglorious and delusional man devoting too much time to a peace plan that won’t work.
• Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is an old and weak man who will never acknowledge the validity of the Jewish narrative, and therefore never be able to make a historic compromise with the Jewish state.
• Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is a small and cowardly man who will never accede to the creation of a Palestinian state.
The first assumption, as we’re learning today, isn’t true.
The death certificate for the process was issued last week, when Israel failed to deliver — in line with a previously determined schedule — on a promise to release a fourth set of Palestinian prisoners from its jails. This failure was followed by a Palestinian decision to seek membership in various international conventions, a move that violated a previously made promise to avoid “internationalizing” the negotiations. Then came the issuance of an Israeli tender for more housing units in a suburb of Jerusalem that offended the Palestinians.
But the parties are actually working through their differences on the prisoner release issue. There is a decent-to- good chance they will succeed in pushing through the current bottleneck. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of the many moving parts in this latest negotiation is Jonathan Pollard; the release of this American spy could be part of a deal to end the current crisis.
Which brings me to John Kerry — and the second assumption. Kerry is many things, but he is not delusional. He believes that Israel is heading down a dangerous path, and that it will not survive as a Jewish-majority democracy if it continues to occupy and settle the West Bank. Now, I know that every iteration of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process over the past 21 years has been called the last chance for peace. But the cliche feels truer now than it has in the past.
Israel is tipping into broad isolation, and Palestinians — those who may be predisposed to a two-state solution — are giving up hope.
Kerry, one of the last of a generation of intuitively, emotionally pro-Israel Democratic leaders, is not delusional to think that Israel is in trouble. Nor is he delusional to believe — as he does — that the average Palestinian on the West Bank is made miserable by the policies of Israeli occupation authorities. Nor is he delusional to believe that Palestinians already inclined to hopelessness might rise up in the absence of a Palestinian state and begin a third uprising.
Is Kerry spending too much time on this issue? Maybe. Syria is a charnel house. The South China Sea is boiling. Putin is Putin. But it is difficult to argue that the two-state solution isn’t worth pursuing.
Assumption three may be true. Kerry appears to believe that Abbas has it in him to reach a historic compromise with his enemy. This compromise not only would mean that he has to make peace with the idea that Zionism is the movement of a people returning to its ancestral homeland, rather than a form of neo-colonialism, but it would also compel him to sell this idea to his people.
Many Israelis have accepted the inevitability of some sort of Palestinian state coming into existence on the West Bank. Many Palestinians have not yet come to realize that Israel has a right to exist in at least part of Palestine. It will take a bold leader to convince Palestinians of this.
Kerry, like U.S. President Barack Obama, believes Abbas is the best leader the Palestinians have, or will have. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean that he’s strong enough to deliver. Obama and Kerry are experts on the subject of Netanyahu’s flaws.
They might not have an adequate handle on Abbas’ flaws.
The fourth assumption possesses elements of truth. Kerry believes that Netanyahu is the only Israeli leader strong enough to make peace and divide the land. Like Obama, he is unimpressed with Israel’s light political bench. He also believes that Netanyahu is applying himself in good faith to the peace process. But he thinks that Netanyahu is torn between two roles — world-historical peacemaker and mayor of Israel.
Kerry’s frustration with Netanyahu (a frustration he shares with Obama) is that Kerry believes the prime minister is often more interested in preserving his political coalition, and his hold on power, than in making the bold push for peace. So long as Netanyahu acts as a long-serving mayor, and not as a prime minister, there will be no breakthrough.
Which brings us to the prime minister’s cross. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has often argued to Netanyahu that it would be best for him to nail himself to one large cross, rather than to a thousand small ones. (Only Biden would use crucifixion imagery to describe an Israeli prime minister’s dilemma, but there you have it.) Kerry, Obama and their negotiators believe that Netanyahu will, sooner or later, have to stop nailing himself to a series of small crosses (prisoner releases, minor settlement compromises) and move to the big cross: Endangering, and possibly breaking apart, his right-wing coalition in order to advance to final-status negotiations with the Palestinians. In these broad negotiations, Israel would have to dismantle dozens of settlements in the West Bank: This is the biggest cross.
It’s an open question whether Netanyahu has this in him. Intellectually he knows the price Israel must pay for a two-state solution. The question is whether this man of inaction can bring himself to risk his political career for a final deal. Kerry believes that Netanyahu is capable of taking a momentous step. Which is why he is sticking with the peace process, despite all the criticism. Kerry may be wrong about Netanyahu, and he may be wrong about Abbas. But he is not wrong to keep trying.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View.