* Robert Lifton … an evaluation of Secretary Kerry’s efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict
Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2014
Secretary John Kerry has devoted enormous time and effort to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together to resolve their conflict. Recently, Israel’s Minster of Defense and a leading member of the Likud party – Moshe Ya’alon – reportedly called Kerry ‘obsessive” and “messianic” and said that Kerry “Should take his Nobel and leave us alone.” He reportedly added that a security plan drawn up by retired Marine Corps General John Allen, former American Commander of NATO–led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, as part of Kerry’s peace making effort “is not worth the paper it is written on.” Other Israeli government ministers who are leading members of the Likud party, while disapproving of Mr. Ya’alon’s choice of language, echoed similar rejectionist sentiments about Kerry’s mission. .
In light of these kinds of comment, one has to ask whether Mr. Kerry’s intense commitment to this subject is making any progress; and what are the expectations for its success and the consequences of its failure. In short, is it worth the effort?
Let’s look at where his efforts have gotten to until now. The starting point of this process was the announcement in Jordan on July 19, 2013 that Kerry had gotten both parties for the first time in three years to ”establish a basis” to start negotiations with the hope that the negotiations would reach a point beyond the “initial phase” that would allow Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet face to face to conclude an agreement. The first phase was given six months to produce that understanding. In December, four months into that process, after the two sides met over 20 times, and it was clear that no significant progress was achieved, Kerry announced that he would soon present the parties with a “Framework Agreement.” Kerry pointed out that the solutions to each of the core issues between the parties are known from previous negotiation rounds – such as the negotiations in 2000 held by President Clinton and the negotiations begun at Annapolis in 2007 and continued in 2008 between then Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Mr. Abbas. He argued that it was essential to have a framework that addressed all the core issues – borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and an end of claims. And to “establish agreed guidelines for subsequent negotiations that will fill out the details in a full peace treaty.”
That Kerry has undertaken such a huge effort knowing the obstacles to success is a statement about his commitment and character. To the student of this conflict, the obstacles are more apparent than the path to success. The Palestinian leadership is weak and Hamas, which is still controlling the Gaza, is opposed to any deal that Israel might accept. However, I have always believed that the power to make a break a deal lies with Israel. And neither the political leadership of Israel nor the Israeli people are demonstrating a deep commitment to a deal with the Palestinians. It has taken a long time, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has finally adopted some of the language of those who are pressing for a peace deal by acknowledging that his desire to make a deal is based on ensuring that Israel does not risk becoming a bi-national state. Still, as the process has moved along he has elevated the emphasis on two demands that his predecessors – and even he, until recently, did not make overt conditions. One is that in any peace deal, the Palestinians acknowledge that Israel is a “Jewish State” and the second, related to the first is that the Palestinians stop “incitements” to violence and teach their young students to recognize the existence of Israel. To be sure, there is ample support for the proposition that Israel is a Jewish state, including the 1947 UN Resolution for Partition that calls for a “Jewish state.” And other Israeli leaders have mentioned the concept without elevating it to a condition. Still, Secretary Kerry has accepted that condition as one of the basic deliverables in a deal between the parties. On the other hand, it is difficult to condition a deal on a course of action that stops “incitement” in a sufficiently provable manner.
The fact is that in any deal Mr. Netanyahu would face serious problems, political and social. The political problem is clear: the present governing coalition could not hold together under a deal with the Palestinians. The Habayit Hayehudi party, for example led by Naftali Bennet is irreconcilably opposed to the West Bank becoming a Palestinian state. Even the centrist leader of the Yesh Atid party – Yair Lapid – has publicly stated his unwillingness to share Jerusalem as a capital with a Palestinian state, although that may be more manageable. To help Netanyahu with the problem of continuing to govern, Secretary Kerry has asked Isaac “Bougie” Herzog who recently became head of the Labor Party and Leader of the opposition to support Netanyahu if his coalition frayed because of a peace deal. Herzog agreed to do that.
Another problem involves moving settlers out of the areas that would be turned over to the Palestinian state. The best estimate is that any anticipated deal would require moving as many as 100,000 settlers. And even though many of those settlers would be prepared to move, we have seen that there are a hard core of settlers that would fight any effort, including one by the by Israel military to move them.
Moreover, popular support for a two-state solution by Israelis as well as Palestinians is waning. The most recent Pew Survey of Israelis and Palestinian show that although a majority of both would approve a deal there is a declining support from both for a two state solution..
On the other hand there are strong incentives for Israel to make a deal. For Israel, the only alternatives to a two state solution are either a bi-national state, which means adding to its citizenry a large Palestinian population or an effort to continue what the UN characterizes as an “occupation” of Palestinian territory. Including a large and faster growing Palestinian population in a broader Israel would end the character of Israel as a “Jewish” state, and an effort to retain that Jewish character by disenfranchising the Palestinian population would end its democratic status. That, or continued “occupation” will inevitably lead to a challenge of Israel as an apartheid state which as was demonstrated in the case of South Africa can bring with it great costs. We are already witnessing efforts to pressure Israel using threats of boycott, divestments and sanctions. Whatever his view of the Palestinians, as partners for peace, Prime Minister Netanyahu, like his Likud nurtured predecessors – Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – clearly has grasped the need for Israel to avoid a bi-national state.
The other incentive for Israel to complete a two state deal has to do with countering the threat from Iran. As I noted in my memoirs, even as early as 1993 the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shared with me his strategic vision that to best be able to counter Iranian ambitions, Israel should make peace with its neighbors, including ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Additional potential value in that connection for Israel lies in the possibility of its joining forces with Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States in a coalition against Iranian hegemony in the region if Israel resolved the Palestinian issue. This is a message delivered to me and three other Jewish leaders by leading Saudi officials some years ago. It is also reflected in the recent willingness of the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, to expand the kind of territorial deal that would meet the requirements of the Arab Peace Initiative to include the 1967 borders with land swaps. That initiative, which was led by Saudi King Abdullah, stated Arab willingness to accept Israel as a neighbor with full political social and economic relationships if it completed a deal with the Palestinians. .
Of course, a failure of the Kerry effort would leave Israel exposed not only to the possibility of a resurgence of Palestinian violence but, probably more threatening to the well being of its citizens, to an intense international effort at expanding the boycott, divestment and sanctions programs through the UN and outside of it. It would also mean the failed opportunity to join forces in an anti-Iran coalition with Arab states that could be of significant value to Israel. And if, after all of his intense effort and commitment, Kerry were to fail in this mission, it is highly doubtful that the two-state solution would be considered a viable approach to resolving the conflict. Under these circumstances, it is clear that anyone who cares deeply about Israel and its future as a Jewish homeland should be applauding Mr. Kerry’s efforts as he pursues his difficult task.
Mr. Lifton’s memoirs, “An Entrepreneur’s Journey: Stories From a Life in Business and Personal Diplomacy,” was published by AuthorHouse in 2012.