Dispatch

Dead on Arrival

Why is John Kerry shuttling around trying to kick-start a Middle East peace process that no one wants?

TEL AVIV, Israel — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up a four-day Mideast peace push on Sunday, June 30, his latest effort in the most sustained U.S. bid at reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks in half a decade. On his fifth visit to the region since taking office in February, America's top diplomat shuttled between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman for meetings that sometimes ran into the wee hours of the morning.

Such a flurry of diplomatic action has led some to believe a breakthrough could be nigh. Yet in Israel, Kerry's dogged do-goodery was met primarily with bemusement.

"One wonders why the secretary of state would, as a first step in his foreign policy, embark on a very complicated issue that seems to many here to be unsolvable," said Zvi Rafiah, a former diplomat closely involved with U.S.-Israel relations for four decades. "Many Israelis are asking why he would choose to stake his prestige on this issue.… If he succeeds, most Israelis would say, 'God bless.' But the chances he succeeds where his colleagues have failed are dim."

If Israelis are confused by Kerry's efforts, they're also not paying much attention. On Monday, the three networks' evening newscasts -- which still set the tone for the national discourse here -- all led with Egypt's mass anti-government protests. In the same day's Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's highest-selling daily, the first four pages were devoted to Egypt and the next 14 to internal affairs. Kerry's photo appeared only on page 18, in a midsized item titled, "Leaving empty-handed."

Maariv, another mass-market daily, ran a nearly identical headline: Kerry was "leaving empty-handed after 72 hours of frantic shuttling." As conservative columnist Amnon Lord opinionated: "This isn't a [peace] process aimed at historic achievements -- forget about it. This is a process for the U.S. government to appear as if it's doing something in the Middle East."

Lord is a former peacenik who changed his spots after the wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks by both Hamas and Fatah that followed the short-lived optimism of the 1993 Oslo Accords and became known as the Second Intifada. His right turn was sharper than most, but it's representative of a widespread skepticism across the Israeli mainstream over whether peace with the Palestinians is achievable -- now or ever.

It's not just right-wingers who predict Kerry's campaign is doomed. Barak Ravid of the progressive daily Haaretz dubbed the secretary of state "naive" and "ham-handed" for his efforts. His colleague Ari Shavit concluded bluntly that there was "no serious Israeli or Palestinian who thinks that the Kerry approach would work."

It does seem an odd time to take another stab at the peace process. Both the United States and Israel face a daunting array of challenges in the Middle East. In Iran, the centrifuges still spin. Along Israel's border with Syria, a two-year civil war has cost upwards of 100,000 lives, drawn in jihadists from far and wide, and sent a half-million refugees into neighboring Jordan. Israel's other borders offer scant consolation -- Hezbollah and Hamas plot attacks from Lebanon and Gaza, while Egypt grapples with some of the largest protests in its history.

Israel's own house is also divided, and citizens are hitting the streets to voice their own economic grievances. In 2011, hundreds of thousands demonstrated nationwide against the rising cost of living. This year, smaller rallies picketed the finance minister's home to protest austerity plans.

Today, the peace process simply ranks low on Israelis' list of priorities. The most recent Peace Index -- a monthly survey conducted by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute -- found Israelis consider the widening socioeconomic gap between rich and poor, the Iranian threat, public safety, and the deficit to be their country's biggest problems. Talks with the Palestinians came in fifth, with just 10 percent saying it ought to top the government's to-do list.

Past failures to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians have turned Israelis into a cynical lot. Many here point to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's failure to respond to a reasonable offer by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, and to a similar failure by Abbas's predecessor, Yasir Arafat, at the landmark Camp David summit eight years prior, as signs that the Palestinian leadership is unwilling to sign a conflict-ending agreement. They point to the Palestinians' own infighting: Abbas's Fatah movement wields authority only in the West Bank and not in Gaza, where Hamas, which has denounced Kerry's peace train as a "catastrophe," holds sway. And they note the steady diet of anti-Semitic hatred fomented by Palestinian Authority media and schools.

Yet mixed with despair is also the widespread recognition that there are few alternatives to a two-state solution.

"It's truly remarkable how the secretary of state of the United States is investing so much time and energy into the region," said Yossi Shain, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations who teaches at Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University.

"Several presidents have invested heavily in the peace process -- notably Bill Clinton and also George W. Bush -- and have been burned. Presidents should not invest all their energies into the issue, as important as it may be," Shain said. "But there's a paradox: Presidents can't be seen to be disengaged.… It's a very difficult line to walk."

For its part, the Palestinian Authority sums up the reason for the impasse in one word: settlements. Palestinian officials highlight the traditionally pro-settlement policies of the Likud, now the Knesset's most powerful faction, and this week's party elections that brought gains to its more hard-line wing, as proof that it's Israel that's holding up a deal.

In March, Haaretz revealed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to quietly refreeze building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a gesture to Kerry as he sought to revive talks. That move, however, was to last only through the end of June. On Sunday, June 30, hours before the secretary of state left Jerusalem, local media publicized Housing Ministry plans to build additional homes in Har Homa, a Jewish neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem that Palestinians say impedes travel between Arab parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

Yet settlements are just one of a handful of core issues on which Israeli and Palestinian officials still seem miles apart. There is the Palestinians' demand for a "right of return" for millions of refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, for example, to which no elected Israeli government will ever agree. There are the questions of how to divide up scarce water resources, the status of Jerusalem, and how to assuage Israeli concerns that a Palestinian state will serve as a launching pad for more acts of terrorism.

It's unclear how Kerry intends to address these issues, which have bedeviled peace processors more experienced than he for decades. Jordanian media have reported he is seeking to organize a four-way peace summit in that country, and the secretary himself has hinted that he envisions a pathway to peace that could "surprise people."

But so far, Kerry's efforts have stumbled over the same, predictable obstacles that have lain in the way of a peace deal for decades. "We look at it from two perspectives. On one hand, we say, 'God bless you, Mr. Secretary; we wish you luck,'" said Rafiah, the ex-diplomat. "On the other, we wonder, 'Where are you running so fast?' The whole Middle East is boiling, and you're concentrating on Israeli-Palestinian talks that will have no impact on the killings in Syria, Iran, or the crisis in Egypt. We're a bit bewildered, but we wish you well."

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Hot Rods

Poking around for uranium inside the world's least secure nuclear reactor.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — The razor wire looked too new to be real. Spiraling tightly above a crumbling 4-foot-high concrete wall that more authentically typified the lazy decay of buildings situated within the Earth's high-humidity equatorial belt, the shiny rhombus-shaped shards of sheet metal were a desperate Band-Aid for decades of inept management. A single armed guard watched a cleaning crew sweep the premises of discarded cigarette butts and single-serve chip bags as they prepared for the arriving VIPs. The security looked appropriate for a neighborhood lumberyard -- not quite up to the task of protecting a nuclear reactor.

One of the world's odder colonial legacies, nuclear proliferation came to the Democratic Republic of the Congo not from a rogue scientist's pen drive, but a Belgian priest's whimsy. Monseigneur Luc Gillon headed what became the University of Kinshasa throughout the 1950s, and as Michela Wrong mused in her book about the last days of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's Congo, "Like a colonial administrator who uses his years in the tropics as a chance to build up his butterfly collection, Mgr Gillon seized the opportunity to indulge in his hobby: nuclear research." His efforts paid off: Le Centre Régional d'Etudes Nucléaires de Kinshasa (CREN-K) was commissioned by Belgium and supported by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1958, two years before Congo's independence.

As Africa's first nuclear plant, it came to symbolize Congo's self-reliance and optimism, providing essential research tools to secure limitless energy independence. Operational before the term "Third World" became a pejorative synonym for poverty and corruption, Congo remained in scientific exchange with its nuclear-powered former patriarch, using the good relations to negotiate in 1972 for a second U.S.-built reactor 20 times more powerful that was parked alongside the decommissioned original.

But paralleling the slow decline of the country after it was rebranded as Zaire by Mobutu in 1971, the new reactor fell into disrepair by 1988 when the government became too broke to buy the U.S.- and French-made parts to keep it running. By the mid-1990s, as wars ravaged the country's east and cancer ravaged the man, Mobutu's control slipped. Rumors even circulated that he had booby-trapped the reactor to annihilate the capital should rebel troops come for him. They did; he fled to Switzerland. The reactor languished. Despite local efforts to revive the program, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to send CREN-K needed parts due to Congo's continued instability.

Today, the reactors are housed in an indistinct administrative building of the sort ubiquitous across the global south. It's a crumbling, Z-grade, concrete-and-rebar brutalist homage of about 40 rooms perched on the University of Kinshasa's campus, about an hour's drive up the hill from downtown Kinshasa. The diminutive reactors are barely three stories high, similar to ones decommissioned in 2010 at the University of Arizona and still running at Kansas State University. Officially shut down in 2004, the CREN-K reactor lords over new student dorms being built across the street and the money-changers up the road bundling million-franc stacks atop blue plastic tables, itching to trade them for more stable U.S. dollars.

Still technically a functioning research facility, CREN-K's offices now host just a few poorly paid scientists. Some are busy playing God with radiation to grow freakazoid plants, nobly seeking a malaria cure. Others analyze endless concrete samples for radiation with dingy computers running Microsoft Windows 2000. Caked beakers, vintage centrifuges, and dented aluminum sterilizers shipped all the way from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, are strewn about the shoebox-sized labs.

But this mothballed dream still has thousands of years of fuel, concentrated in what used to be 140 indigenously mined enriched-uranium fuel rods scattered around the compound in a few barely fortified buildings. Congolese uranium, the very kind that once filled the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been shopped around the world, enriched and raw, in burlap sacks and suitcases weighing up to 200 pounds, destined for undesirables like Saddam Hussein and North Korea. CREN-K's own U-235 rods -- utterly enticing dirty-bomb material -- have developed a nasty habit of vanishing without a trace.

After two decades of war (which still rages in other parts of the country), Congo is attempting to return to normalcy, and that means restoring former glories. May's CREN-K "open house" attempted to do both, showcasing indigenous technical achievement while making as many improvements as the anemic, stretched state coffers allowed. A 36-hour-old paint job gave the whole place that "new reactor smell"; a vinyl banner was strewn from the razor wire; and a buddy finally materialized for the machine gun-toting guard who until now passed lonely days in solitary. A perfunctory gate check (I got in by depositing an expired frequent-flier card) marked the first and last of the day's security.

An artificial turf mat complete with a sassy cursive "Welcome!" greeting was haphazardly tossed in front of the main doors. Once inside, crossing a hallway led to another set of tinted glass and steel doors, where in any other nuclear facility, a visitor would surely expect to encounter a labyrinth of elevators, stairs, and security card-swiped checkpoints before the main event. I clandestinely turned on the Russian Soeks brand Geiger counter in my bag for signs of invisible negligence. Nothing amiss yet.

And just like that, there it was: the TRIGA Mark II nuclear reactor, a barbell-shaped octagonal silo decorated in the cheerful national colors of sky blue and yellow. A slightly unfriendlier pale orange on top marked the ominous reactor zone. A couple of laminated signs with the universal symbol for radioactivity were taped up here and there. Despite the warnings, as well as my misgivings, neither "danger" nor "melting" flashed red on my detector.

Seeing something so dangerous, so provocative, as six dozen enriched-uranium fuel rods a mere stone's throw away sends the brain tumbling into cloak-and-dagger mode pretty quickly. I tried to imagine what it would take to steal a rod or two. Clearly, a CREN-K heist would be like watching Mission: Possible.

Cue the music. In front of me lies a grated bridge, the first step to the booty. But wait, my egress is blocked by a steel chain wrapped in white plastic tubing strung just above knee level. Were I able to navigate that hurdle, then comes a waist-high orange gate. Jumping over it could be possible … but maybe I'd be better off just walking around. Once atop the beast, the next obstacle would be more steel grating above the reactor. That would mean clipping a couple of cheap locks. Then, clearly, come the laser sensors, humidity alarms, and so on.

Wait, what? That's it? I'm in?

Indeed. Even Guy Ritchie's biggest bumblers (NSFW) wouldn't need more than five minutes to get to the fuel rods -- there's also a helpful pulley operated remotely with which to extract them, if needed. The 2-foot-long rods look like miniature brass javelins and are composed of a uranium-zirconium hydride chemical blend that can reach 1,200 degrees Celsius before any real damage is done.

Plan B -- busting into the original reactor that now is little more than a spent-fuel warehouse and simply carrying them out -- was the method of choice the last time that two rods were stolen, in 1997. One was recovered a year later after the Italian mafia tried to pawn it off to a Middle Eastern buyer; the other is still on tour somewhere in the black market underground.

I asked Sebastian Luindula, head of scientific affairs at CREN-K, about this horrific lapse of security. Don't worry, he said. The spent fuel was moved "far far away from here. All the way to the other side of the compound." Luindula also said that they installed motion detectors similar to what you might find at any suburban house in the United States. Like most of Congo's elite institutions, the reactor and surrounding surveillance rely on a DIY power hodgepodge of unreliable state supplies combined with diesel generator backups to stay operational, and uninterrupted coverage is always elusive.

Plant officials have been dreaming of restoring the reactor's functionality for a decade, but international watchdogs like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are terrified of the prospect. The IAEA and Interpol have been desperately worried about security lapses and the deteriorating scene here since at least 2006, but little has changed. The average CREN-K employee still earns less than $100 a month. And like many government servants with access to international funds here, they reportedly siphon off most of the meager IAEA improvement funds to supplement their non-livable wage.

While much more dangerous than its surprisingly pedestrian U-238 cousin (available for about $40 a pound on the open market or direct from the U.S. Department of Energy), CREN-K's U-235 still needs to be twinned with a large conventional explosive to cause mass casualties. Once again, it's not hard to come by here. With Congo's epic mining and farming booms bringing thousands of tons of material -- from dynamite to fertilizer -- monthly through the capital, Kinshasa, with little to no oversight, it is increasingly becoming a one-stop dirty bomb shop.

In the meantime, the sticky coat of fresh paint does little to conceal the global danger. Despite ominous WikiLeaked warnings from the U.S. State Department and others, the IAEA only sends inspectors here once a year due to its own budget limitations. In a world still awash with decaying post-Soviet nuclear facilities, little reactors like this can easily fall through the cracks.

Thus lies the wrenching predicament. A country brimming with some of the world's most desirable raw resources is magnanimously gifted their technical fruits, but then refused the trust needed to keep them operational. Post-colonial pride gets stymied, which turns into a languorous apathy, then a dangerous disregard.

A small crowd had gathered at the gates of the reactor, waiting in turn for their own tour. As I left the compound, an argument broke out at the stagnant entrance queue. The line wasn't moving quickly enough; the new security guards were flustered and outmatched. I checked my Geiger counter one last time, looked back at this crumbling, newly painted monument to a future unfulfilled, and boarded the VIP bus back to Kinshasa.