Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take Israelis and Palestinians long to declare with conviction that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s first “shuttle” trip to the region had failed. Conditions are “unacceptable” and the “obstacles are too big.” And this was before either was asked to do the fundamentally reasonable thing: compare maps delineating the two-state model.
Welcome to the wonderful, bizarre, smoke-and-mirrors world of Middle East peace-making, Mr Secretary. Get used to it; it won’t get better.
Mr Kerry had barely left the region en route to China to focus on the brewing North Korea crisis, and a chorus of Israelis and Palestinians knew for a fact that many of his suggestions, ideas and policy options were non-starters. Been there, never done that.
To a degree, they are tragically right. After all, if the Clinton Parameters of Camp David 2000, enunciated by former US President Bill Clinton in January 2001 or the Olmert-Abbas understandings of 2008 are not enough, how can anything Mr Kerry proposes or discusses be acceptable?
Israel, under the current government, would like to ignore both sets of principles when negotiating a final-status deal. The Palestinians cannot endorse this, since the accords are, in their perception, solid terms of reference.
The Palestinians, after refusing the Camp David deal, demand to go further than Olmert-Abbas. This is unacceptable to Israel not only because of the predominant right-wing nature of the government or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s distaste for, and suspicion of, the two-state solution, but also and primarily because Hamas, and not the Palestinian Authority, controls Gaza.
Given these two irreconcilable approaches, it is almost impossible to imagine a grand deal.
But Mr Kerry is optimistic that some form of a process with tangible and achievable short-term goals can be launched despite reluctance on both sides, political instability and upheaval in the Palestinian Authority and a patently right-wing government in Israel.
Mr Kerry reportedly indicated two important time frames for progress: He will travel to the region every few weeks and aim for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian mini-summit in the upcoming weeks, perhaps with indirect involvement by Turkey.
Secondly, he has allotted a six-month period to decide whether sufficient common ground has been reached to warrant presidential involvement. If there are positive indications, Mr Kerry will then approach US President Barack Obama and seek his commitment.
Herein lies the key question: how involved will Mr Obama become? Will he be convinced that a deal can be reached and craft a presidential initiative, or will he allow Mr Kerry to play peace-maker and remain focused on the more pressing foreign-policy priorities in east Asia, not to mention his domestic agenda?
If Mr Kerry fails, it may be well into the next president’s term, circa 2018, when the US re-engages with the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. By 2018, another development may affect US policy: At that point, the US will be very close to attaining total energy independence, certainly from Middle Eastern oil. Israel and the Palestinians, with all their grievances, justifiable apprehensions and past peace-process meltdowns must take this into account or pay a very high price.
It should be clear by now to any observer of this conflict and conflict-resolution saga that, left to their own devices, at this point in history, Israel and the Palestinians are eminently incapable of reaching a deal through bilateral negotiations. The level of distrust, disillusionment and suspicion is just too high.
Furthermore, and beyond the empty rhetoric of “our hand is extended and we will take risks for peace,” both have developed a mirror-image posture based on a disincentive to reach a deal. The stakes are too high, the intangibles too many and the political cost too expensive.
In six months or so, Mr Kerry may conclude that if time is not of the essence to Israel and the Palestinians, then surely wasting time is of the utmost essence for him personally and for US foreign policy in general.
Until then, Mr Kerry will presumably try to work out deal that establishes a provisional (demilitarized) Palestinian state on, say, 60 per cent of the West Bank, backed by a Security Council resolution that contains mutual recognition. The Palestinians would recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and Israel would recognise the state of Palestine, whose final borders will be demarcated within five years. In order to achieve this, Mr Kerry will need Saudi, Jordanian and even Egyptian backing.
This is a precarious tipping point. Neither side can conceivably agree to the other’s map. Israel will have to dismantle settlements, not just illegal outposts, or pledge to do so within the five-year period. A Netanyahu-led government will not do this. The Palestinians will have to be content with a mini-state, defer “core” issues and pledge to extend their rule to Gaza. They cannot do so.
When Kerry tires of his shuttle diplomacy, his best bet may instead be to send Dennis Rodman, fresh from his public-relations stunt in North Korea, who will at least have the capacity to shock and entertain while taking on a hopeless cause.