Secretary of State John Kerry has pulled off a major achievement in getting Israelis and Palestinians to say yes to the United States. Can he now get them to say yes to each other?
I admire Kerry’s doggedness in getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table for the first time in five years, in part by making clear that whoever said no to America’s urging that they resume talks would be called out publicly. I also like the fact that Kerry dared to fail. It is how you make history as a secretary of state. It can also be helpful to him going forward. Even a little success like this breeds more authority, and more authority can breed more success in other arenas.
That said, the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian deal remain slim. Indeed, if these negotiations were a play, it would be called: “When the Necessary Met the Impossible.”
So why should we even bother? I’ve always thought that the most important rule of journalism is: Never try to be smarter than the story. There is every reason to doubt that these talks will succeed, but when you look under the hood of this story you find there were some powerful forces propelling both sides to say yes to Kerry — and at least consider saying yes to each other, so it’s worth letting this play out a little.
Let’s start with a small item in Britain’s Independent newspaper on July 24, which began: “He once sang, ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place,’ but now Eric Burdon is not even turning up at all having deciding to withdraw from a planned concert in Israel. ... The Animals frontman, whose hits include ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and ‘San Franciscan Nights,’ had been due to perform alongside local Israeli bands in Binyamina. ... However, in a statement, Mr. Burdon’s management, said: ‘We’ve been receiving mounting pressure, including numerous threatening emails, daily. ...’ Burdon was just the latest of a rising number of artists and intellectuals who have started boycotting Israel over the occupation issue.”
Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank is isolating the Jewish state more and more. Just before Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu agreed to these negotiations, the European Union announced new guidelines banning EU financing or cooperating with any Israeli institutions in territory seized during the 1967 war. This involves research grants, scholarships and cultural exchanges. The EU is considering requiring any products made in West Bank settlements to be labeled as such (some individual EU states already do) to make them easier for Europeans to boycott. These are dangerous trends for Israel. The EU is one of Israel’s largest trading partners. And now add the fact that Palestine has been granted U.N. status as a “nonmember observer state,” so President Mahmoud Abbas is positioned to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank, which are widely viewed as contravening international law.
Meanwhile, Abbas was looking at a situation where the turmoil in the Arab world was both sidelining the Palestinian issue and weakening his archrival, Hamas, which had been supported by the Syrian regime and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. If Abbas — who foolishly did not take advantage of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer of a two-state deal in 2008 — did not take advantage of this renewed U.S. effort, it is not clear when the next bus would come again for him, if at all.
If all of that explains why both sides felt these talks were necessary, what makes them feel impossible is the sheer accretion of obstacles. There are some 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and at least 50,000 to 80,000 would have to be moved, even after land swaps. There are tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza who will have to be persuaded that they can return to those two places but never again to their original homes in pre-1967 Israel.
Hamas will try to use any Abbas concessions to undermine him, while rightists in Israel will go ballistic over any Israeli givebacks in Jerusalem, while Palestinians will denounce any leader who does not restore a Palestinian foothold there.
And have no doubt: Just trying to make peace will have consequences the minute both sides reveal their maps. One should never forget just how crazy some of Israel’s Jewish settlers are.
They assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin when he tried to cede part of the West Bank for peace. Nor should one underestimate the capacity of Palestinian hard-liners to generate suicidal violence when left only with despair or a sense that their leadership is selling them out.
But doing nothing also promised disaster — permanent Israeli control of the West Bank — and I think the center in both communities has come to see that. I repeat: They did not come to the table by accident or just to please us. But saying yes to each other will require a new kind of leadership from Abbas and Netanyahu. They will have to help each other face down their respective internal opponents rather than use each other as an excuse for not doing so. How and whether they do that is the drama that you’re about to see play out. Pull up a chair.