Why didn’t John Kerry approach peace process creatively?

I am an optimist by nature, but 33 years in Israel have taught me not to be when it comes to subjects like politics or the short-term prospects for the Middle East. Unfortunately for my family, myself and my country, this pessimism proves me right most of the time.

April 29 was the end of the nine-month period of the American-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. I hate to be right about things of this nature, and I dislike even more saying “I told you so.” But in my October column, “Seeking peace in the shadow of war,” which I wrote when this current round of negotiations began, I sadly had it figured out. Why didn’t John Kerry and the rest of his team? Trying is commendable, but if you take a stab at a problem so elusive, then analyze why it hasn’t been solved and go with a creative approach.

There are numerous and complex reasons for another failure to break through the 20-year impasse. Unfortunately Kerry intimated pretty clearly that Israel is to blame for the breakdown due to not releasing the final batch of Palestinian prisoners, raising the demand that Israel be recognized as the homeland for the Jewish people and announcing housing starts in East Jerusalem in the future. It is sad to see a seemingly dedicated and good man, who has a long record of support for Israel, covering up his personal failure in such a superficial blame game. Kerry hardly mentioned the Palestinians’ violation of their promise not to submit membership applications to UN institutions, the official PA incitement against Israelis during the negotiations or the lack of Palestinian flexibility or their refusal to commit to continue negotiations beyond April 29 as the reasons for the Israeli steps. I really do not want to write about the tit-for-tat nature of the final weeks of the negotiation charade. It is more important to look at why this failed, the results of the failure (including the unity agreement between the PA and Hamas) and where this leaves us. As usual, Israel is getting the blame for this, so it’s worthwhile to look at the accusations and understand our version. New Israeli settlement plans derailed the negotiations: As much as the international media tries to make of settlements, they are not the core issue. Israel has proven on many occasions that for real peace, settlements will be dismantled, settlers evacuated (by force if necessary) and land will be turned over to our former enemies. Settlements give the Palestinians the excuse to continue to avoid making real gestures toward peace. I would have preferred that during the negotiations Israel not engage in settlement rhetoric, which was largely bombastic statements by right-wing elements in the coalition who would like to derail the negotiations. In essence this was mostly planning for construction that won’t begin for several years, and all of which is in areas proposed to become part of Israel as part of territorial swaps. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were serious about peace, the settlement issue would not be an obstacle. As Times of Israeli blogger Paul Gross writes: “There may well be a future Israeli prime minister more willing to confront the West Bank settlers’ expansionist plans than Netanyahu – and that would be both a practical and a moral step forward – but he did freeze settlement building for 10 months in 2009/10, and Abbas waited until the 10th month to restart negotiations then ended them when that month was over. Yes, settlements are a problem, but – contrary to popular assertion – they are not the problem. That remains a Palestinian unwillingness – or, perhaps, a psychological inability – to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state.” Abbas is a true partner who can deliver peace, and therefore Israel is to blame for the breakdown of talks: Abbas’ record over the last 20 years clearly illustrates a repeating trend. While for many years he voiced opposition to terror, claiming that it no longer serves the Palestinian cause, he has not once in the 19 years since Oslo made any concession or retreated from the demands of an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 “Auschwitz” borders (as the late Abba Eban called them), repatriation of refugees (a multigenerational definition of “refugee” that applies to no people other than the Palestinians) and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. In his recent column “Abbas continues to fool with us,” Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit criticized Abbas and many Israelis who do not recognize his strategy. He details how Abbas repeatedly has avoided accepting any Israeli overtures, then writes, “(A)fter all of this, did we open our eyes? Not at all. We again blamed the Likud and Netanyahu and had expectations that in 2014 Abbas will not dare to say no to Kerry. Oops, surprise: In his polite and clever way, Abbas said no to both Kerry and Obama. Again it was clear that the line toed by the President from Ramallah is clear and consistent. No flexibility. Instead a sophisticated game of squeezing more and more out of Israel without any clear Palestinian compromise.” Abbas is almost a figurehead who rules over little more than his immediate vicinity. If elections were held in the West Bank, Hamas would sweep him out of power as they did in Gaza in 2005. He has never responded with counterproposals to Israeli peace offerings. Yediot’s Nahum Barnea wrote, “Despite his battle against terror as a tool in the struggle, he is frightened to sign any agreement with Israel. He has had a signature phobia since 1995 until today.” Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be recognized as the homeland for the Jewish People helped sabotage the negotiations: While Abbas’ unwillingness to show any flexibility has gone largely unnoticed, much criticism has been leveled at this demand by Netanyahu. Many have tried to imply that this was an Israeli attempt to add a final proverbial straw to break the back of the negotiations, including Toronto University Professor Robert Fulford who writes, “They know that Israel is surrounded by neighbors who will likely never recognize its existence as the Jewish homeland, much less sign a treaty developed in a ‘peace process’ quarterbacked by Washington.” Israeli centrists and moderates who desire a two-state solution believe if Israel is expected to recognize the homeland of the Palestinian people, the Palestinians should unequivocally ecognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Contrary to perception, this step is not intended to derail the peace process. The intention of this demand is a creative way to try to overcome the obstacle of the untenable and inflexible Palestinian demands.

Pre-67 borders and refugee return obviously negate our existence. Despite American pressure, the Palestinians have not softened their position on these issues; so to create some hope for a breakthrough, Israel’s strategy has been to demand that concessions to these harsh Palestinian demands will be based on the condition that the final agreement will be an end-of-conflict and end-of-mutual-claims agreement. Isn’t that the goal of negotiating a solution? But even on this basic tenet, Abbas will not or cannot commit. So Netanyahu proposes mutual recognition of each other’s homeland; if Abbas accepts it will show he is not in this just to get more prisoners released. This would give Netanyahu the tool necessary to stand up to the strong right wing pro- settlement bloc and take the next steps in the peace process. If Abbas agrees to reciprocity on the mutual recognition of Jewish and Palestinian homelands, then Netanyahu will have space to negotiate the border and other issues in good faith, something that cannot be done as long as Abbas does not give an inch on the core issues. But Abbas immediately saw this as a threat to the Palestinian narrative of the conflict that denies any Jewish connection to the land. Abbas has used this myth as an important weapon in delegitimizing Israel, and immediately sought backing for its rejection from the Arab League, where political courage and vision are as accepted as women’s equality in Saudi Arabia. To Kerry and the world, it should be clear that while this ostensibly moderate Palestinian leadership claims to support “two states for two peoples,” it continues to deny any historical Jewish connection to the land. Not good for trying to end the conflict. As long as the Palestinians did not even hint at some flexibility on their core issues, then the homeland of the Jewish people issue was the last option that would allow Netanyahu the space to take a bold stance and perhaps initiate a second freeze of settlements during the negotiation period. Like Abbas, Netanyahu is in a weak position; he leads a party of only 20 seats, and many of these Likud Knesset members will not allow any flexibility in negotiations with Abbas unwilling to stray from his positions. Netanyahu will not do what Sharon did, i.e., leave a rebellious and reactionary Likud to set up a new party. The survival of the coalition is his highest priority, even at the cost of a continued stalemate. Against this backdrop, Kerry insisted the negotiation process would be one that would settle all issues. He insisted on grand negotiations meant to resolve refugees, borders and Jerusalem. What was he thinking? How would he succeed where his predecessors, who worked in a less hostile environment when the gaps were less extreme, had failed? Had Kerry bothered to look at the situation as it is and not been swept up by dreams that are currently unattainable, he actually might have been able to make a contribution. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogy” Ya’alon was severely and justifiably chastised for saying that Kerry has a messianic obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian issue and is driven by his desire to win a Nobel Peace Prize. As tasteless and disrespectful as these comments were, they are understandable.

The U.S. administration was delusional to think all of the issues could be solved in the immediate future. If Kerry really wanted to make a lasting contribution to solving this conflict, he should have looked at what smaller and intermediate steps could be implemented on a practical level to lower tensions and lay a cornerstone of future willingness to tackle the core issues.

We realize most Palestinians have not given up hope of eliminating us, and most of us do not want to wait until the Palestinians understand the futility of this. We prefer to separate from the Palestinians, the sooner the better, by agreement if possible but unilaterally if necessary, without the mistakes of the Gaza withdrawal. We must allow for additional safety valves due to the upheaval in the Arab world. If, as Kerry maintains, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the inspiration for conflicts in different regions, and at the heart of our conflict with the Palestinians is our control over them, then why didn’t he latch on to this concept? Why didn’t he see that in the absence of a peace process, separation has become a legitimate and acceptable strategic option with advantages for both sides? A number of public figures and writers have proposed this option, most recently former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren as well as prestigious think tanks such as the Reut Institute and the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, which have formulated strategies for such a move. Channel Two’s Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s most prominent Arab- affairs journalist, has proposed an “armistice agreement” with the Palestinians; Israel would evacuate settlers and soldiers from the vast majority of the West Bank, keeping enough territory to thicken Israel at its most vulnerable points, but leaving contiguous territory for the Palestinians to establish a state with provisional borders. The question of final borders, as well as the thorny issues of the refugees and Jerusalem, would be left until the Palestinians are ready and willing to seriously negotiate. If Kerry had adopted this realistic approach, the United States and the quartet would have abandoned their cherished peace process. They would have had to use their bankrolling clout with the Palestinian Authority to pressure the leadership in Ramallah to agree to these efforts, simultaneously offering generous support to build up the economy and infrastructure of the Palestinian state that would gradually emerge. Paul Gross sums this up best when he writes: “It’s high time this reality was acknowledged by those countries that purport to back the two-state agenda. There will be no handshakes on the White House Lawn, no Nobel Peace Prizes. Instead of focusing on peace, Israel, the Palestinians, the U.S. and any other would- be interlocutors must simply look for the best way to help us end the occupation by establishing secure borders for Israel. That is now the only game in town.”

Mylan Tanzer is an American native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at mylantanz@gmail.com.

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