One More Last Chance

Is John Kerry quietly on the cusp of a Israel-Palestine peace talks breakthrough?

As Secretary of State John Kerry heads off to Jerusalem and Ramallah in search of a still elusive Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he probably doesn't need to be reminded that nobody ever lost money betting against one.

The odds that Kerry can succeed are long; and even if he did manage to reach a Framework Agreement on Permanent Status -- what we use to call a FAPS back in the day -- that doesn't mean the piece of paper can be implemented.

Still despite my own annoyingly negative analysis, as the 2013 gives way to 2014, I'm slightly more encouraged about Kerry's prospects. And here's why.

That a secretary of state wants an agreement and is prepared to work relentlessly toward one is no guarantee of success, particularly when it's not clear whether the two sides really want one, or that his own president has his back. At the same time, the fact that Kerry is actually thinking of presenting the two sides with a FAPS suggests strongly that there has been some narrowing of the gaps on the core issues. And that would simply not have been possible without Kerry.

Granted, in politics and in life, there's often a fine line between self-delusion, commitment to any enterprise with long odds, and actual success. But Kerry has put himself in the middle of this mix and just doesn't seem willing to give up. This kind of commitment in a strange way creates an infectious reality that can help risk-averse parties to a negotiation actually believe in its viability. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Mahmoud Abbas know how to reach an accord on their own -- or frankly would have taken the initiative to do so if left on their own. Kerry is the glue and adhesive. Let's see if his relentlessness can help the two sides own the FAPS too, and then make something stick.

Make no mistake, Kerry would not have gotten this far if he wasn't working within Netanyahu's comfort zone. If a FAPS is to be reached everyone will need to stretch. But Bibi's willingness to acquiesce in this process flows largely from the fact that he believes he can put his own stamp on it -- whether or not the accord is ever reached. Otherwise, like the P5+1 interim agreement with Iran, you'd be hearing a lot more static from him right now.

Of the six issues likely to be referred to in a FAPS, the prime minister believes three will break his way: security, refugees, and recognition of Israel as Jewish state. Now, that's not because Abbas has accepted the Israeli position on these three things, but because Washington has. The Americans won't support the Palestinian view on right of return for refugees and have already endorsed the "Israel as a Jewish state" issue. Moreover, if the press reports on security issues (and Palestinian complaints) are accurate, Israel will be able to maintain their own forces in the Jordan Valley, an ability to shape security along the border with Jordan, and a lot of fancy technological counterterrorism bells and whistles.

Either way Bibi's a winner. If Abbas swallows some of this, Bibi will claim that he got more from an Arab partner than either Begin got from Sadat or Rabin got from Hussein on an issue far more sensitive than any with Egypt or Jordan. If Abbas refuses, Bibi will still be in good with the United States and he'll look like a hero defending key Israeli principles. Indeed, there is no reference in either of the treaties with Egypt and Jordan to their recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

On the other three issues -- borders, Jerusalem, and end of conflict and claims, Netanyahu is probably isn't in all that bad shape either. There's no proof yet, but he's likely playing with formulations that accept a border based on June 1967 lines but with all kinds of territorial adjustments and land swaps that will essentially modify those lines significantly. End of conflict (that there are no more claims to be adjudicated and the conflict between Israel and the new Palestinian state is over) has always been an issue that the Israelis have pressed for; though it obligates them to deal with all the issues, including Jerusalem. That last one's a tough cookie. But it's not beyond the realm of Deputy Legal Advisor Jon Schwartz's brilliant mind to fashion generalized language on this issue relating to two capitals.

The Palestinians are the weakest party to these negotiations and they don't have much of an advantage to level the playing field. After all, they have threatened to walk from away from the table at least twice. Lead negotiator Saeb Erekat even submitted his resignation. And, guess what? The talks continue -- even in the face of significant Israeli settlement activity.

Even though Abbas is weak, why would he accept a FAPS that forces him to capitulate? And what does he get out of the deal? First, the prisoner releases -- so hard for the Israelis to swallow -- have already provided concrete deliverables and an emotional lift on the Palestinian side. Second, if a FAPS gets done, it will produce language on borders and Jerusalem that will take Netanyahu further than he's been and closer to Palestinian principles. Third, the United States has almost certainly made clear to the Palestinian side what its view on these issues are; and on those two Washington is indeed closer to Abbas than to Netanyahu (which would become clear in negotiations toward a comprehensive accord). Finally, Abbas would almost certainly look for Arab state cover for his concessions and would press Kerry to help him get it.

And finally, what's the alternative? The Arabs are preoccupied with their own troubles; Abbas hasn't produced economic prosperity, unity with Gaza, or an end to the Israeli occupation. He's got options, yes, but none of them are any good. Abbas could quit, retire, turn the keys to the Palestinian Authority over to Israel, or start a third intifada. That's not going to happen just yet. So better to hang in with the talks through the designated 9-month period, see where the Kerry effort goes, and hope that if it doesn't end in an accord he can live with, the process concludes in a way that he can put the blame on Netanyahu.

Bibi would probably prefer that there not be an active effort for peace on the part of Kerry. But now that the game is on -- and seriously so -- he really doesn't want to take the hit for its collapse. He's a tough political trader, but the dislocation, political fallout, and international opprobrium if he's the one who's seen to have mucked it up will be significant. Having climbed way up the ladder in blasting the international interim agreement with Iran, Netanyahu really doesn't want to be in the same position again on the Kerry peace process. Nor do Abbas and Bibi want to risk the vacuum left by an outright Kerry failure.

John Kerry isn't James Baker, and doesn't seem inclined to threaten placing a dead cat on the doorstep of the Arabs and Israelis who reject his effort. But there's no doubt that one of the reasons the process is still alive is that nobody wants to be blamed for its demise.

There's quite a bit we don't know about these negotiations. The degree of radio silence surrounding the Kerry effort -- for a non-secret negotiation -- is pretty impressive. That either means there's something to protect or that there's not much "there there." We also don't know about back channels or the extent of direct Netanyahu-Abbas meetings, with or without Kerry.

But let's assume the best-case outcome: that Kerry succeeds in getting both sides to agree to a FAPS -- essentially a document of shared principles on the core issues. It's not a comprehensive or detailed agreement, let alone a treaty of peace. But make no mistake, if a FAPS is reached -- particularly if it breaks new, common ground on land and Jerusalem -- it will be a significant achievement, possibly even a breakthrough. For at least 15 years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators (with and without the United States) have tried; nobody has yet done it. Yes, it will be flawed and messy, but it will begin to acquire a life of its own.

At the same time -- and I hate to ruin the party -- can the FAPS become a CAPS (Comprehensive Agreement on Permanent Status) and then actually be implemented? Will the politics make that possible? Will Netanyahu and Abbas even be the implementers?

The obstacles that stand in the way of the creation of a Palestinian state are galactic. Dealing seriously with various aspects of Jerusalem -- not just as a political capital of two states; but with the holy sites, and the challenges of maintaining a living city -- is a monumental task. What about continuing Israeli settlement activity, or the tens of thousands of Israeli settlers that will need to be evacuated from the West Bank and the established communities that exist there? How do you deal with Hamas in Gaza and the reality that in the wake of Israeli withdrawal from there, no Israeli prime minister is likely to withdraw from the West Bank -- unless all the guns of Palestine, including Hamas's high-trajectory weapons, fall silent permanently?

So many questions; so few answers. And there are no solutions in sight. But, hey, you have to start somewhere. And there's a pretty good chance that within the next month or so, we'll have a much clearer and better sense as to whether John Kerry's hard-fought effort is a key to an empty room or an open door on the road to the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images


Spirited Away

Why Shinzo Abe's visit to a Tokyo shrine could make his lousy relations with Beijing much worse.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Thursday visit to a controversial Tokyo shrine has pissed off friends and foes alike. The government of South Korea, which was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, was furious; a spokesman said, "We cannot withhold regret and anger over the visit" to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan's war dead -- and a few of its internationally-designated war criminals. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo even released a statement saying "Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors." But no capital was more incensed than Beijing. 2013 was already a bad year for Sino-Japanese relations, with disputes over a mutually-claimed island chain and both side's militarization. Abe's shrine trip could make things much worse.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Abe had pushed Japan in an "extremely dangerous" direction. Also in its statement, China's Foreign Ministry employed an expression it often uses to chide Japan: "stay focused on the future and grounded in history." The word used, jian, means mirror, and the expression conveys an unrealistically optimistic hope, as if the reflections of the past are clearly visible in the present.

The Chinese protest Yasukuni visits and the Japanese proceed to visit anyway because both sides believe their actions are righting history. To oversimplify an incredibly complicated subject, many Chinese view Japan as stubbornly unapologetic for invading their country during World War II. Japan, or so the thinking goes, has not yet been made to pay for its crimes. (And they think the return of the Diaoyus, the disputed island chain in the East China Sea, which Japan administers and calls the Senkakus, would be a step in the right direction.)

For their part, the Japanese feel China has overreacted to their misdeeds and now demands appeasement. It's an important debate, with worrying parallels to Germany's angst over its treatment after World War I. And the shrine itself, an exquisitely manicured garden in a wealthy part of Tokyo whose name ironically means "pacifying the nation," has become an unlikely flashpoint in this struggle.

Yasukuni contains three different elements, two of which the Chinese, South Koreans, and some Japanese find extremely objectionable. Its uncontroversial aspect is its history as a shrine of Shinto, one of Japan's major religions. According to its website, Yasukuni was established in 1869 "to commemorate and honor the achievement of those who dedicated their precious lives for their country." Like every country, Japan honors its war dead. More than "2,466,000 divinities," are enshrined there, the souls of men who perished in all Japanese wars since 1853.

Of these men, it's 14 who incited the controversy: Japan's "Class A" war criminals, including Tojo Hideki, Japan's prime minister during World War II. Class A is the most serious designation, and the 14 enshrined in Yasukuni represent fully half of the total convicted after World War II. Many Japanese objected to the 1978 decision to include these men: Emperor Hirohito, who had formerly visited the shrine, stopped going after the Class A war criminals were included; his successor has never visited.

The first prime minister to visit after the Class A criminals were enshrined was Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985. "After he saw the regional reaction -- which was quite negative, Nakasone said it's very important for me to have good relations with China and South Korea, so I won't go again," said Jennifer Lind, an associate professor at Dartmouth College focusing on East Asian security issues. The issue died down again until Junichiro Koizumi, a popular Japanese prime minister who served from 2001 to 2006, made it an annual habit, sending relations with China into a tailspin. In a meeting with Koizumi in November 2004, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reportedly urged him to "correctly handle the problem of the Yasukuni Shrine" by "staying grounded in history, which is correctly dealing with history, the cornerstone of Sino-Japanese relations for generation after generation" -- a patronizing remark from a country with notoriously inaccurate views of its own history.

The Chinese didn't like Koizumi's visits, but they appeared to understand his motivations, said Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute. They had a regularity to them that provided a ballast to the relationship. Abe, who succeeded Koizumi, stopped visiting the shrine, probably as an attempt, mostly successful, to improve relations. However, Abe continued to argue that Japan was wronged by the United States after World War II. In 2006, during his first stint as prime minister, Abe said the 28 Class A war criminals are "not war criminals under the laws of Japan." He allegedly views the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the U.S. body which convened the trial, as "victors' justice." (Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese prime minister from 1957 to 1960, was himself accused, but never indicted, of Class A war crimes for his role as minister of Commerce and Industry in the 1940s.) It's a view that probably gets less sympathy than it should. "If the United States had lost World War II, and Harry Truman, Gen. George Patton and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower [leaders of the U.S. war effort] had been declared war criminals, the United States would have said, 'That's absurd!'" says Lind. "When you try on that argument for size, it sounds less ridiculous."

The other controversial aspect of the shrine is its museum, the only institution I saw in Tokyo that rivaled Beijing for its propagandizing and revisionist retelling of World War II. A description in the museum makes the inaccurate claim that during World War II's bloody Wuhan campaign, the Japanese "took perfect care to secure the safety of residents and historical and cultural monuments." Most problematic is the description of the Nanjing Massacre, when Japanese troops  brutally massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese in December 1937. Without mentioning the atrocities, the description claims the commanding general kept "strict discipline," and that the defeated Chinese "were completely destroyed." When I visited in early September, on a trip to Tokyo sponsored by the nonprofit Sasakawa Peace Foundation, the museum was playing a movie entitled "We Will Not Forget," about "our current history and war history, based on historic fact." Lind called the museum "truly disturbing."

Koizumi would time his visits to the shrine to coincide with historically significant days. In April 2013, during a spring festival associated with the shrine, Abe declined to visit but sent cabinet members, as well as the ceremonial offering of a branch from a cypress tree. The Chinese and South Koreans were still furious. "In his mind, Abe thinks he did everything he could to improve relations with his neighbors over his first year in office. The worrying thing about Abe is that he may feel relations among the three countries couldn't get any worse," said Auslin. Abe's refusal to honor the Chinese and stay grounded in their problematic view of history could be very dangerous. Auslin added, "I think he's basically saying, 'This is how I'm going to act. Get used to it.'"

With Angela Kubo in Tokyo.

Isaac Stone Fish