Israel, Palestine and Kerry’s legacy

There was an interesting article the other day in the Wall Street Journal by Walter Russell Mead. “Both the EU and the United States made a historic blunder by underestimating Russia’s reaction to the Ukrainian trade agreement,” Mead wrote. While “neither the American policy-makers nor the European ones who stumbled into this bear trap are stupid,” he continued, there is a problem with their thinking “that has haunted Western statesmanship since 1989”: They believe that the end of the Cold War means the end of geopolitics.

I read the article while riding the Washington, D.C., metro, on my way to a couple of meetings downtown. And as I was reading, I thought about Secretary of State John Kerry and his effort to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. A possibly “obsessive” yet admirable effort, performed with intensity and determination.

Kerry’s chances for success are not great, as Shlomo Avineri pointedly explained last week. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he wrote, “is an excellent partner for talks — as long as they are talks designed to lead Israel to make more and more concessions, and to put them in writing. Then, on one pretext or another, he is unwilling to sign and brings the negotiations to a halt.” Thus, it is almost a certainty that Kerry will produce a document, two to three weeks from now, following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House next week. That the two sides — Israel and the Palestinian Authority — will eventually accept the document as a basis for further negotiations is also very likely. (In regard to Israel, I’d say it’s a certainty again.) But it is not very likely that this document and the ensuing negotiations will produce a final agreement.

Yet, why not try?

Ukraine might be one answer to the “why not?” question. Syria and Iran might be an answer, too. In short — here we return to the point made in Mead’s analysis of how the United States failed to respond properly to the moves made by Vladimir Putin in the Ukrainian crisis — because of their tendency not to think about geopolitics.

Dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a noble enterprise, it really is. But strategically, from an American viewpoint, it is wasting time on a relatively minor issue. More civilians were killed in Ukraine in the last seven days than in Israel-Palestine (the West Bank) in the last seven years. More civilians are killed in Syria every month than in Israel-Palestine in the last 10 years. So saving lives can’t be the motivation for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And neither can strategic considerations be the reason. True, Kerry correctly points to the fact that world leaders always push the United States to “do something” about this conflict. So, clearly, some leaders see this as an urgent enterprise. Yet, it is not inconceivable that these are the same leaders who have replaced strategic thinking with what Mead calls diplomacy “about order and norms” — leaders who lack in the setting of priorities. And they go to Kerry with such requests about Israel and Palestine because the United States, for two and a half decades, was the greatest promoter of peace processing. The United States was the one selling the world the idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace as an urgent and high-priority matter, and it is now the one using the fact the world bought into this idea to explain why it is even more urgent.

The fact remains: Israeli-Palestinian peace can be of great value and interest to Israelis and Palestinians. It is of little consequence to the rest of the world. The rest of the world needs an interventionist America where it counts, as Niall Ferguson explained in his own Wall Street Journal column. “Balance without an enforcer is almost inconceivable,” he writes. And hence, hoping for “an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran,” as President Barack Obama did in his New Yorker interview, has no basis in reality. “The trouble with his analysis,” Ferguson writes, “is that it does not explain why any of the interested parties should sign up for his balancing act.” In fact, Ferguson is kinder with the president than most of the knowledgeable Washington players I met with on  Feb. 21 — they believe that the president isn’t playing for “equilibrium” and that he is simply running the clock out.

So when I was thinking about Kerry’s efforts, I wondered whether the achievement is worth the trouble. I wondered if Kerry — in the very unlikely case of success — might discover that he has won the wrong game, that he has won one in the minor league while losing in the major league.