The Peace Process Is Back

The cynics may not believe it, but Kerry's push to get Israelis and Palestinians talking could actually work.

Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth. It's hardly surprising, then, that the champagne was kept on ice following Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement that a resumption of talks was imminent.

There are very good reasons to doubt that a revived peace process will deliver a two-state deal, or even much by way of progress. Kerry's statement was rife with uncertainty regarding exactly when the talks would happen, and what agenda they would address. Nor does it help that Israeli government ministers rushed to retake pledges of loyalty to the settlement project, or that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will sit down at the negotiating table without any of the prerequisites he had outlined as the basis for a meaningful process.

The domestic politics of each major player in the peace process also should be a reason for caution. Much of the Israeli cabinet seems to prefer annexation of the Palestinian territories over a two-state outcome, the Palestinians remain politically divided and weak, the major Arab countries remain fixated on instability at home, and the Americans remain politically timid. Yet well-placed caution -- and even pessimism -- should not translate into defeatism, which risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

President Barack Obama's administration deserves credit for having understood from day one the significance of the Israel-Palestine issue for the region, and for how America is perceived there. Even amid so much upheaval, from Syria to Cairo, this issue retains its iconic status and remains an albatross around Washington's neck. Kerry also deserves credit for having taken that commitment to a new level with his personal engagement, visiting the region six times since becoming secretary of state.

Though cynics may say otherwise, there is a value in having overcome the impasse of endless talks about talks and the pre-negotiation blame game. Beyond putting an end to the bizarre spectacle of Benjamin Netanyahu playing the role of "The Shunned Suitor of the Palestinians," here are five things this latest attempt to revive the peace process has going for it.

The Kerry urgency factor

The secretary of state seems to have abandoned the ridiculous idea that America cannot want a deal more than the parties themselves. Of course it can: A sustainable Israeli-Palestinian deal is a U.S. national security interest, as every U.S. CENTCOM commander has unequivocally testified since the 9/11 attacks.

Significant forces in Israeli politics, society, and government think that Israel can run out the clock on the two-state option -- and a comparable trend exists on the Palestinian side. Given this reality and American discomfort with the alternatives to two states, it falls to the United States to stand with a stopwatch and inject urgency into the process.

It matters that Kerry is so personally invested and determined in this effort -- and he should remain so, even if additional envoys are appointed. The secretary of state cannot be easily ignored by either side when he engages on the issue, especially since Obama has done just enough to demonstrate his support -- as he did by calling Netanyahu in the middle of talks last Friday.

Kerry's shuttle diplomacy may look old school, but it has gotten us this far. Hipsters might crow about digital diplomacy, but face-to-face talks are far more relevant to this conflict. And Kerry will have to stick to the task: Progress will require an effort mapped out over the remaining 42 months of Obama's second term, allowing time for political change to percolate among the protagonists.

Israeli politics -- not as hopeless as it looks

After winning the January 2013 election, Netanyahu set about forming a coalition with a majority opposed to a two-state outcome. Even if Netanyahu were to entertain an Ariel Sharon-like break with his party over a territorial compromise -- which he has thus far shown no inclination to do -- it is unclear whether more than a handful of his own party members would join him, or that the Israeli political center would defer to his leadership.

But that doesn't mean all is lost. There is very likely a majority within the current Knesset for a two-state deal, made up of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party (19 seats), the ultra-orthodox parties (18), Labor (15), Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah (6), Meretz (6), and Kadima (2), for a total of 66. Many of the 11 members of the Knesset from the ostensibly Palestinian-Arab parties would also be supportive. A "Netanyahu and friends" break to the center could strengthen that majority -- but it can exist without them.

Close observers of the Israeli political scene might scratch their heads at the inclusion of the ultra-orthodox in that potential pro-peace majority. But they'd be wrong to write the Haredim off: They were never great Zionists or settlement proselytizers. In fact, the two big ultra-orthodox settlements hug the Green Line and can easily be accommodated in a land swap; they are currently at loggerheads with the settler right, have supported peace moves in the past, and interpretations of Jewish law provide them cover for agreeing to de-occupation.

The bottom line is this: If there is a moment of truth on a two-state solution, don't assume that Israeli domestic politics will automatically ruin it. But don't expect Netanyahu or the Israeli political system to voluntarily generate that moment.

Kerry is focusing on territory

Negotiations of this kind will always rely on a degree of creativity and imagination, but they also require some inescapable anchors. The idea that the 1967 lines provide the basis for the borders between Israel and Palestine in a two-state deal is one of those anchors. Kerry, fortunately, seems to understand this fact -- and grasp that other issues cannot be allowed to crowd out the territorial dimension.

Focusing on territory is not going to be easy. If talks do get underway, expect Netanyahu to throw obstacles in the way of a real discussion on the issue by trying to change the subject. Even a generous interpretation of Netanyahu's position on territory would fall far short of what is needed for a politically acceptable and viable Palestinian state, and the Israeli leader does not want his unreasonable and maximalist position to be exposed either abroad or at home (where the politics may not actually be with him).

Netanyahu's territorial appetite -- which envisions an enlarged Jerusalem and Israel's refusal to withdraw from settlements or the Jordan Valley -- simply leaves no room for a Palestinian state. He has never accepted the 1967 lines as the basis for talks, and none of his three governments have ever adopted two-states as official policy. The same is true for his Likud Party.

Kerry must find a way around Netanyahu's obstructionism. One option is to place other issues in parallel tracks, a move the secretary of state already seems to be making. Economic improvements, while of obvious importance, cannot substitute for de-occupation and should remain a separate negotiation now headed by Quartet Representative Tony Blair. Security can also not be allowed to derail the territorial issue -- and here Kerry has tasked Gen. John Allen with leading what is mostly a U.S.-Israeli bilateral track to address security concerns.

Kerry has also put a regional support structure in place, helping to revive the Arab Peace Initiative by twice meeting with representatives of Arab states. This work has already paid off, with the Arab group endorsing the idea of allowing agreed land swaps to the 1967 lines. The secretary of state must continue to avoid the failed approach tried by former envoy George Mitchell, who prodded Arab states to take incremental steps to normalize relations with Israel before de-occupation was secured.

This all represents a smart start by Kerry. The one area in which Netanyahu currently appears to be successfully distracting U.S. efforts is the push to frontload Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state of Israel. It might sound reasonable -- but it is a red herring absent an Israeli willingness to address Palestinian history and narratives, and the current structural discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel itself.

Kerry's effort will stand or fall on his ability to drag Netanyahu to a moment of truth on the territorial issue. Unhelpful suggestions for interim agreements and provisional borders must not be allowed to distract from that: If faced with a choice, the prime minister will likely be exposed as a naysayer -- but the Israeli public might just say yes in spite of him.

Europe is helping by ending Israeli impunity over settlements

Even with the most rosy-eyed analysis, Kerry's path is strewn with difficulties. Not least among his challenges will be the past Israeli experience that there are no consequences for saying "no," and that peace talks provide an ideal cover for misbehavior in the occupied territories.

Kerry must disabuse Israel's political leadership of this notion. Many Israeli politicians claim that any pressure is counterproductive and negatively impacts peace efforts. Well, they would say that. But not only is it an obviously self-serving argument, it is also wrong. Israeli centrist politicians constantly warn the public that absent peace, Israel will pay a price as the international community imposes penalties on it -- and they are constantly proven wrong. If the Israeli public perceives that equation to be shifting and impunity to be challenged then enough voters might prioritize the Palestinian issue and empower the pro-two state camp.

That appeared to start happening last week when Kerry's shuttle diplomacy coincided with new EU guidelines prohibiting funding for settlement-based entities. While the actual euros heading to the settlements are insignificant, the issue caused a stir because it seemed to presage a tipping point in the erosion of Israeli impunity. Contrary to the Israeli government's claims, it turned out there were consequences for ignoring the international consensus against the settlement enterprise. And the news from Europe appeared to cement, not collapse, Kerry's mission to renew talks.

The current U.S. peace push will probably only stand a chance if Israel faces real consequences for its continued occupation. As long as the paradigm is two states for two peoples, any punitive measure should be rooted in a distinction between Israel proper and the occupation.

That means peace talks themselves must not be rewarded this time around by deferring actions that create consequences for continued occupation and settlement growth. Those should continue in parallel to talks and should only be put in abeyance when Israel produces real deliverables on de-occupation. The past week has offered a glimpse of a meaningful European role in this process, and a constructive division of labor between the United States and Europe.

Even if he fails, Kerry can make lemonade from lemons

Kerry's intense engagement, even if it fails to produce a breakthrough, may still be the best option currently available for both Israelis and Palestinians. On the Israeli side, the government is instinctively pro-settler, and populated by settlers themselves in key positions, such as the Housing and Construction Ministry. It is probably best restrained by the baby-sitting that Kerry and his team have conducted.

On the Palestinian side, it is quite clear that the current leadership has no game plan going forward -- not even in its push for recognition at the United Nations. There is no new strategic initiative on the cusp of being launched, the opportunity costs for resumed negotiations are minimal, and reconciliation with Hamas is not in the cards. The promising civil society campaigns that have emerged in recent years need more time to accumulate experience and to drive political change, while renewed U.S. attention also helps prevent more bloodshed in Gaza.

These secondary causes of Kerry's involvement in Israel and Palestine might be something less than a full-fledged peace agreement -- but they're not nothing. If the end result of the secretary of state's intense diplomacy is to prevent further deterioration -- if all he has to work with is lemons, in other words -- then don't disparage the resulting lemonade.



A Terrorist by Any Other Name

The E.U. finally decided to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Why won't the U.N.?

It has now been a year since Hezbollah operatives blew up a tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian bus driver, including a pregnant woman. And after an erratic decision-making process, Europe has finally responded: On July 22, the European Union designated Hezbollah's "military wing" as a terrorist entity.

The terror designation ends years of European prevarication on Hezbollah's true nature -- and could pave the way for more international efforts to isolate the self-described "Party of God." Britain, which designated Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist group in 2008, spearheaded the E.U. sanctions measure. The new penalties -- if enforced aggressively -- could lead to travel bans on Hezbollah members and officials visibly connected to military activities, the freezing of its assets in Europe, and a crackdown on the Lebanese Shiite group's recruitment process among Europeans.

But the European Union, compared to many nations, is still going easy on Hezbollah. The party's entire organization is now outlawed by the United States, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands, and Bahrain. By only designating Hezbollah's military wing, the European Union stopped short of dismantling its entire apparatus within its territories. The E.U. decision is designed to stop further Hezbollah terrorist attacks on European turf -- but allow Europe to keep the lines open to Hezbollah politicians. Walking this line will be no easy task, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague tried to capture the dilemma on Monday in Brussels: "We have to distinguish as best we can."

France, which was skeptical about Hezbollah's involvement in the Burgas attack, took the lead in opposing the terror listing until late May. However, the political landscape in Syria triggered a dramatic change within France's foreign policy establishment: With Hezbollah deepening its intervention on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, Paris was terribly worried about losing its diplomatic leverage in the Levant, where it was once a colonial power. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius directly linked French policy to Hezbollah's involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war, saying, "Given the decision that Hezbollah has taken and the fact that it has fought extremely hard against the Syrian population, I confirm that France will propose to place Hezbollah's military wing on the list of terrorist organizations."

The sea change in France's policy moved additional member states to jump on the sanctions train. Ireland and Austria were two of the more recalcitrant countries opposed to the terror listing, largely because both countries contribute troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions that monitor ceasefire agreements between Israel and its northern neighbors, Lebanon and Syria. But it wasn't only France that convinced them to change their tune: In one of the more interesting forms of lobbying, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria, reportedly helped persuade the Austrian chancellor to sanction Hezbollah. (Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg, responding via Twitter, wrote, "A.Schwarzenegger did indeed send a letter arriving Saturday morning. Austria had taken it's [sic] position already.")

Between Europe and the United States, which outlawed Hezbollah in 1995, it is clear that the international community is tightening the noose around the Lebanese Islamists. But there is still one organization that has remained conspicuously silent about this international threat: the United Nations.

The global body has thus far limited itself to doling out ineffective wrist slaps and euphemisms in addressing Hezbollah's global terrorist reach. In a typical example, the U.N. Security Council on July 10 called for "all Lebanese parties" to refrain from involvement in the Syrian crisis -- a bland reference to Hezbollah's murderous role. (According to Reuters, the reference to Hezbollah was watered down due to objections from Russia.)

While the United Nations has a raft of counterterrorism bodies and resolutions, it has yet to come up with a viable definition of terrorism -- leaving individual states free to collaborate with any groups not specifically targeted by the international body. But when the United Nations wants to crack down on a specific group, it has shown the ability to do so: The U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on al Qaeda, for instance, with a series of resolutions dating back to the late 1990s. In a similar vein, the Security Council has the authority, if its members are willing, to target Hezbollah.

The Lebanese Shiite group could also be shoehorned in under the existing U.N. sanctions resolutions targeting the party's patron, Iran. The U.S. government has long stressed the intimate ties between the two actors: Assistant Treasury Secretary Daniel Glaser, for instance, testified before Congress in 2011 that Hezbollah was "Iran's primary terrorist proxy and foothold in the Arab world" and "a global organization with unparalleled financial and commercial resources." Reeling off a list of places where Hezbollah-affiliated individuals or commercial operations had been targeted by the Treasury Department -- from Lebanon to Latin America to Africa -- Glaser stressed, "the real power behind Hezbollah lies in Tehran."

Why should this be of urgent concern to the United Nations? Because, as Glaser highlighted, Hezbollah is no mere parochial threat. Since it was created in the early 1980s as a Lebanese offshoot of Iran's Islamic revolution, its networks, fund-raising rackets, terrorist plots, and killings have long been global -- earning it the nickname in Washington, "the A-team of terrorism."

Today, Hezbollah infests every continent -- with the possible exception of Antarctica. And its lethal schemes are only growing more frequent: Just this May, the U.S. State Department reported that "Iran's state sponsorship of terrorism and Hizballah's terrorist activity have reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s, with attacks plotted in Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa."

Hezbollah's bloody trail stretches back three decades and reaches from the Middle East, to Africa, to Latin America. The party cut its teeth with the 1983 U.S. embassy and Marine barracks bombings in Beirut, and then the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. It has also been implicated in terrorist attacks on the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, as well as the horrific 2005 bombing in Beirut that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. In Nigeria, the arrest of three dual Lebanese-Nigerian nationals armed with everything from land mines to anti-tank rocket launchers -- enough weaponry "to sustain a civil war," according to the public prosecutor -- prompted a member of the country's security services to label Hezbollah's military wing a terrorist organization.

The Burgas bus bombing was the latest example of Hezbollah's terrorist bona fides -- and also its global reach. The planning and execution of the attack straddled four continents. It was conducted in Europe and masterminded from the group's base in Lebanon, but the Bulgarian investigation found that the plot was led by a cell that included citizens of Australia and Canada.

Hezbollah makes no secret of its anti-Semitic aims. Just weeks before the lethal attacks in Burgas, Cypriot authorities arrested Hossam Taleb Yaacoub, a dual Lebanese-Swedish citizen, for plotting to kill Israelis and Jews on the island. In March, a Cypriot court sentenced him to four years in prison, though the court chose to describe his acts as criminal, rather than terrorist. Yaacoub offered police officials a neat summary of Hezbollah's global reach, telling them that Hezbollah "was just collecting information about the Jews. And that is what my organization does everywhere in the world."

Slapping a U.N. terror designation on Hezbollah will be no easy task: Washington would have to make a big push for the United Nations to seriously consider acting. But nobody can know whether it's possible -- so far, the United States has barely raised the issue. It has limited itself to the occasional grumble, such as Acting Permanent Representative Rosemary DiCarlo's comment at the Security Council on July 23 that "Iranian and Hezbollah-backed fighters and advisers" have supported the Syrian regime's assault on its own people. U.S. diplomats have been unwilling to comment publicly on this omission, and a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations declined to comment for this article.

The United States may be reluctant to campaign for sanctions on Hezbollah for fear that such a bid would not get past veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China. Witness China's continued business dealings with Iran, Russia's backroom dilution of the recent condemnation alluding to Hezbollah, as well as both nations' refusal to allow U.N. sanctions on Syria.

But the free world invests billions of dollars in the United Nations every year -- not to mention its credibility in the name of promoting international peace and security. Should the U.N. Security Council prove simply too craven or morally crooked to take actions against Hezbollah, there would still be benefits to airing the case against the "Party of God." This is surely a debate worth having at the United Nations -- and soon.