Which aspect of John Kerry’s statement last week that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the root of Middle Eastern instability is more remarkable – that he could actually say such a thing or that such an extraordinary claim could pass almost unnoticed in a media landscape rarely short of opinions about the region?
Let’s first revisit what the secretary of state said. After talks in Amman, Kerry waxed lyrically: “Peace is in the common interest of everybody in this region. And as many ministers said to me today in the meeting that we had – many of them – they said that the core issue of instability in this region and in many other parts of the world is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Think, for a moment, about that clause “in this region and in many other parts of the world…” During a week in which the total number of deaths in the civil war in Syria approached 93,000, there is something almost obscene about depicting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the source of regional instability.
Even more breathtaking is the follow-on about other regions around the globe. I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impacts the terrorist militias on the Colombian-Venezuelan border who are making millions of dollars out of cocaine trafficking, or how it influences Chinese repression in Tibet, or whether three million instead of four million people would have perished in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s myriad wars had Israel only stopped building settlements in the West Bank.
I do, however, understand why Kerry made this statement. The State Department needs to place the best possible spin on the announcement that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are to resume after more than two years of gloomy silence.
Never mind that Hamas has already said the PA has no legitimate right to conduct negotiations. Never mind that almost as soon as Kerry made his announcement, rumors began circulating that the PA was renewing its insistence on placing preconditions on Israel before entering talks. Never mind that other countries in the region are too preoccupied with the crisis in Egypt to get overly excited about another photo opportunity involving Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. You must have faith, ladies and gentlemen, that this is the path to transforming the Middle East.
There’s another way of describing this situation. Faced with the brutality and complexity of the Middle East’s other, larger conflicts, Western policy has been emasculated. Another intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian arena is therefore all the more attractive because, irony of ironies, it is the one aspect of the Middle East today that looks manageable.
Here’s another irony: the primary reason it looks that way is because Israel, a stable democracy and Western ally, can be relied upon to be cooperative. Israelis are rightly skeptical that their little corner of the world is of almost metaphysical significance to the future of the international order, but they also grasp that a renewed peace process is in their interest. As Finance Minister Yair Lapid pointed out, Israel isn’t looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but a fair divorce. And a fair divorce means Israel can finally place responsibility for governing the Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves.
Moreover, if the world wants evidence of Israel’s decent intentions, look no further than the announcement from Yuval Steinitz, the minister in charge of the country’s intelligence and strategic affairs portfolio, that the government is willing to release a significant number of Palestinian prisoners, some of them convicted for terrorist crimes, in order to smooth the way for negotiations.
Which brings us to the last irony: Kerry was said to be furious that a potential monkey wrench in the works emerged in the form of the European Union. The EU believes Israel must be pressed into concessions, which is why, a few days before Kerry announced what he hopes will be a breakthrough, it issued new guidelines stating that any Israeli “entity” that wishes to be considered for funding or other opportunities must have no direct or indirect links with those Jewish communities established in the territories that came under Israeli control after the 1967 war.
That doesn’t just refer to the West Bank. It refers to the eastern half of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. And it refers as well to the Golan Heights, which the EU apparently wants to return to Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
With this measure, as well as its earlier decision to separately label produce from settlements in Judea and Samaria, the EU is demanding that Israel return to its 1949 armistice lines before negotiations even begin. Any flexibility Kerry and his team might desire on the Palestinian side will, as a consequence, be that much more limited, since the PA can now retort that while Washington might not fully grasp the justice of its cause, Brussels certainly does.
Herein lies the risk of renewed peace talks: The Palestinians will derail them, much as they did with previous attempts launched by the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and the Israelis will get the blame.
That’s why Kerry should be making it clear to the Europeans that the U.S. will not tolerate any EU punitive measures against Israel should the talks collapse. And he should also make clear that final borders would be addressed at any negotiations, not in advance of them. Frankly, given the warm welcome Israel has given his peace initiative, it’s the least he can do.