SECOND TERM SOLUTION
It was reported that Kerry told some of his friends (including a number of Middle Eastern leaders) at the beginning of President Obama's first term that the U.S. would find a solution in his second term. It was as if Kerry believed that it was a foregone conclusion that Obama would win a second term in office – and that he would become secretary of state.
Since assuming his post, Kerry has given much attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He has travelled to the region several times in the short period since he was appointed to his post, despite the fact that the Middle East does not top the Obama administration's agenda. The administration has many other more important issues to grapple with, such as the sluggish American economy, as well as foreign policy issues such as relations with Asian powers (China, North Korea), Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program, Russia, Europe, and the changes taking place in the Arab world (Egypt and Syria in particular). The possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the potential of these weapons falling into the hands of extremists, is of particular concern in Washington.
Kerry asked Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas not to pursue his plan to go to the UN for two months in order to enable him to reach an arrangement by which peace talks could resume. Abbas agreed. Now that the two-month period is about to end without result, Palestinian sources said that the U.S. secretary of state asked for a further two weeks. Kerry's efforts are characterized by the following:
--They are shrouded in utmost secrecy.
--Kerry chose to persuade – rather than pressure – Israel to return to the negotiating table. This essentially requires adopting Israel's view of a settlement. Kerry has apparently learned the lesson his boss learned in his first term, when he tried to pressure the Israelis into stopping settlement activities to no avail.
--Instead, Kerry chose to pressure the Palestinians and Arabs. He demanded that the Arab Peace Initiative (API) be amended to make it more palatable for Israel, by adding the principle of land swaps (rather than amending borders, as Palestinian and Arab circles tried to convey). He also called for enhanced regional cooperation, i.e. that the Arabs should initiate steps to normalize relations with Israel before a peace settlement is reached. The rationale behind this is that Israel needs to be reassured, especially after the instability unleashed by the Arab Spring. Israel, Kerry argues needs reassurance regarding the future status of East Jerusalem and regarding the issue of Palestinian refugees (the Israelis want to get rid of such terms as 'fair settlement' and 'right of return' as well as UN resolution 194. Finally, Israel is adamant that the Arab world recognizes it as the state of the Jewish people.
--Kerry has been working to provide Arab cover and participation. He knows that the Palestinians cannot make the major concessions required of them without such cover. That was why he insisted on amending the Arab peace initiative from the very beginning.
The recent surprise Palestinian-Jordanian agreement about administering holy sites in Jerusalem should be seen in this context. The agreement handed responsibility for the sites to Jordan, making Amman a participant in the negotiating process. The reason is to enable Kerry to dismantle the vexed issue of Jerusalem into small parts that could be dealt with more easily.
Kerry called on Abbas to freeze reconciliation efforts with Hamas, because he believes that achieving reconciliation before Hamas recognizes the conditions laid down by the international quartet would obstruct efforts to resume peace talks.
Kerry's vision encapsulates proceeding on three tracks (political, security, and economic) simultaneously and in parallel. When he failed to make significant headway with the Israeli government on the political front, his focus shifted to economic issues. He promised the Palestinians economic aid; false rumors began to circulate of billions in investments. Kerry subsequently announced that both Abbas and Netanyahu had agreed to his proposals, which indicates a radical shift in the Palestinian position. The Palestinians had hitherto refused to concentrate on economic issues for fear of being enmeshed in Netanyahu's 'economic peace.'
Kerry's strategy called for focusing on getting talks started on borders and security in an effort to circumvent differences on settlements, the main reasons why talks have been deadlocked for the last several years.
His main gamble was that the Arabs were immeasurably weakened by the Arab Spring uprisings and are more concerned with internal problems (the Gulf States meanwhile were more concerned with how to evade the worst of the Arab Spring and how to confront the Iranian threat, which they see as more serious than that emanating from Israel).
Kerry believes that he can make Israel an offer it cannot refuse: creating an Arab-American-Israeli alliance against Iran, a Sunni-Shiite conflict, a Jordanian-Palestinian conflict, a Palestinian-Palestinian conflict, a conflict between Jordanians, and an altered API (which would become a de facto Israeli initiative). Such an initiative would begin with the Arab states normalizing relations with Israel, and acceding to the principle of land swaps, which means legitimizing settlements, dividing East Jerusalem and the West Bank, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, removing the issue of the occupied Golan Heights from the agenda, adequate security arrangements for Israel, and, finally, the signing of a peace treaty.
But the major obstacle standing in the way of Kerry's efforts remains the possibility that Israel could reject this generous offer. The Israelis believe that in the light of the turmoil unleashed by the Arab Spring, they could get a better one if they wait a little longer. In addition, Israel already has in its hands much of what Kerry is offering.
All of which explains Netanyahu's reaction to the news that the seven-party Arab delegation acceded to the principle of land swaps – a major Arab concession to be added to a series of previous concessions. Netanyahu said, ‘The essence of the struggle is not over land but over the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.’ After all, Israel already holds all the land, and does not need to bargain over it. What Israel needs is Arab recognition of it as the 'promised land.' Then, and only then, could Israel consider letting go of its hold on the Palestinian people – but only after it receives solid guarantees that a Palestinian state would never be established.
Israel says that its hard line position stems from the fact that any agreement with the Arabs cannot be guaranteed because of the fluidity of the situation in the region. Nothing, it says, can be relied upon, not governments, not peoples, and not even states. Israel cannot sign agreements with rulers who could soon be toppled, especially as it realizes that its importance in the eyes of the Americans and Europeans as a trusted and reliable ally has been enhanced.
In addition, the U.S. administration, which has so far failed to persuade Israel to freeze settlement activity, would certainly fail to persuade it to negotiate and agree on borders unless the Arabs and Palestinians make even more concessions. This after all has been what has happened up to now, with Netanyahu rejecting the American view and insisting on his demands that a declaration of principles (containing a general framework for an agreement on basic issues especially the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, ending the conflict, ceasing demands, and putting in place security arrangements) be agreed on first.
Netanyahu knows that he has nothing to fear. Perpetuation of the status quo is in Israel's favor, especially as the Arabs have no viable alternatives. Even after the Palestinians succeeded in winning non-member observer status at the UN, they (and the Arabs) continued to act as if nothing has happened.
The danger lies in the Arabs' and Palestinians' constant pursuit of a settlement without having the strength to impose one – which causes them to make endless concessions. Instead of reaching a final settlement within a year or two – as Kerry promises – we will most likely find ourselves stuck in the same position albeit with several billions in investments, a confederation with Jordan, and confidence-building measures. In other words, perpetuation of transitional steps that could only serve to liquidate the Palestinian cause piecemeal until conditions become ripe to liquidate it once and for all.
The real fear is not of Kerry failing, but of him succeeding. That would mean liquidating the Palestinian cause under the title of a false 'settlement.'
It would be for Israel – rather than for the Arabs and Palestinians – to make sure that Kerry fails.