With the peace process sputtering, will John Kerry abandon his signature initiative -- or cling to his belief that a deal can really be reached?
Like rock-and-roll, the Middle East peace process will never die. The latest chapter of the ongoing saga has encountered recent travails and may dwindle away. But for better or worse, in some form, the overall process will go on and on -- and on.
The central problem remains and will continue to be Tom Friedman's or Larry Summers's brilliant notion (not sure who really coined it) that in the history of the world, nobody ever washed a rental car. People only care about what they own, and today there just isn't enough ownership of this peace process by the Israelis or Palestinians to prompt the excruciatingly painful decisions both sides need to make to guarantees the process's success.
The only person who does own it is John Kerry. He believes peace is possible. Anyone who didn't believe would never take this process on with the intensity, relentlessness, and passion of the current secretary of state.
Believing isn't necessarily a bad thing; it can make a person tough and persistent. Believing only becomes a problem when a couple of things happen: You believe in what you're doing way more than anyone else; you believe that you're on a mission that nobody else but you can redeem; you believe that crusading is the last chance to achieve what you want; and (yes) you believe you can fix something that really may not be fixable. There is nothing wrong with getting caught trying to act on a belief, as Kerry maintains -- unless you continue to try with absolutely no chance of success. When that happens, what was deemed ennobling ends up looking foolish and, worse, appears weak.
Despite what his critics contend, Kerry hasn't yet reached that point -- in large part because, based on my own sense in watching this enterprise over many months, both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas see him as a kind of security blanket. They really do want him involved, even though they have grave doubts about whether they can make (or even want to make) this effort successful. The world without Kerry is worse for each of them than the world with him. Without him and his peace process, Bibi fears isolation and what will happen with respect to boycotts and pressure on Israel. And Abbas is smart enough to know that, no matter how popular it may be on the streets of Palestine, taking his statehood campaign to the international arena won't get him an independent country.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the secretary of state is being used. And not just by Netanyahu and Abbas. President Barack Obama is doing much the same thing.
I do think Obama would like to see Israeli-Palestinian peace realized. It just doesn't appear to be one of his top priorities -- nor should it be -- and I don't think he's prepared to put a great deal on the table without a much stronger sense that there a chance of actually accomplishing anything. Enter Kerry, who is ready and willing to manage the process. Like with Netanyahu and Abbas, the secretary of state serves a useful purpose, and Obama is glad he is around, so long as his effort doesn't require truly tough decisions by the administration or become embarrassing. A line may have been crossed with the Jonathan Pollard issue; I don't know exactly how it played at the White House, but it couldn't have gone down well. Pollard is a presidential matter, and so far it's turned out to be pretty messy. Is there going to be a deal? Is it even a good idea? There are too many questions; it all makes it look like the White House doesn't know its own mind -- or that it has a tactic without a strategy.
What should the secretary of state do? He won't walk away, even though there's a good argument that he's being diddled and should put some distance between himself and the parties to the process. Plus, it's a big world and other areas beckon for his attention (see: Europe and Asia). He won't reveal what progress he's made on the substance of issues like Jerusalem or borders, either because there simply hasn't been much or because it's not ready for prime time.
Obama could shake things up by setting out parameters on what the United States believes constitute the basis for a settlement, but that's not going to happen until he is persuaded that the process is really, truly dead without him and pressure mounts for some bolder U.S. action.
Ultimately, I think Kerry will continue to engage as he has been. I'm betting the process will start up again. Where it will lead, I can't say, but where it won't lead is to a conflict-ending solution that resolves all of the core issues and lays to rest all claims. I suspect that Kerry will remain adrift for the foreseeable future in a kind of peace-process Bermuda Triangle, suspended between the two-state solution the parties won't commit to and a commitment to peace that he won't abandon.
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