by Mitchell Plitnick
As US Secretary of State John Kerry pursues talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, political opportunists on all sides are trying to seize the moment to advance their goals.
Kerry emerged from his second day of meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas trying to maintain some public faith in his efforts. Between his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas, Kerry stopped to preach his gospel of hope to some visiting Jewish students from the US, and later, after his meeting with Abbas said that some progress had been made toward the framework agreement he is hoping to achieve.
Of course, this “framework” idea seems a little late, given that Kerry has only four months left from the nine that were designated as a deadline for these talks to produce an agreement. And negativity continues to flow from both the Israelis and Palestinians, who would certainly seem to be a better gauge than Kerry himself.
And with the short time frame, the last thing any of the parties need is growing concerns about their own domestic politics. Yet that is precisely what emerged this week for all three parties, albeit in very different ways for each.
In Israel, Avigdor Lieberman has been trying to re-invent his image since even before he was reinstated to his position as Foreign Minister. He has repeatedly made statements warning that Netanyahu was being too careless about the relationship between the United States and Israel. Kerry, apparently, was all too willing to help Lieberman in this effort, perhaps as a way of exerting more pressure on Bibi. Whatever the reason, Kerry met separately with Lieberman after meeting with Netanyahu, giving Lieberman another chance to reiterate his support for “continuing dialogue with the Palestinians.”
In the West Bank, Abbas could not have been pleased, though also not surprised, by the protest that awaited Kerry’s arrival in Ramallah. Organized by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the protesters focused on perceived US support for Israel’s position on maintaining Israeli troops for years to come in what would ostensibly be Palestinian territory. The DFLP is a member group of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and, though it’s not a major party like Fatah in the PLO or outside it like Hamas, it is taking up the mantle in this case of representing widespread Palestinian frustration at the positions the leadership is taking. It was a clear demonstration for Kerry how strong popular objections are to the direction talks seem to be going. This highlights the question over whether Abbas can deliver popular support for the kind of agreement that would be necessary to get Netanyahu to sign on. In fact, for anyone paying any attention to popular Palestinian sentiment (which, it seems, is not a category that includes any leading US officials), the protest demonstrated just how much of a fantasy it is that an agreement that is going to permanently restrict Palestinian sovereignty over Israeli desires that are cloaked in the mantle of “security concerns” could ever pass the required referendum.
Kerry and his boss, President Barack Obama, were not immune to the swirl of domestic politics either. A trio of Republican Senators – John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming – just happened to stop off in Israel on their way back from Afghanistan while Kerry was there. McCain seized on the opportunity to support Netanyahu against the President of the United States by saying that he shares Netanyahu’s concerns about the security provisions of the framework proposal.
McCain and his fellow Republicans help to demonstrate the shaky domestic support Obama and Kerry have for these efforts. Opinion in the United States is generally moving away from direct involvement in foreign conflicts. However, in this case, that is mitigated by support for and feelings of friendship toward Israel that is still significant in US opinion. But even given that feeling, US opinion that the US government should not be directly involved in the conflict has been steady and has, in recent years, only trended upward. This makes for a potentially difficult situation for the White House, as the fight in Washington is between groups who want the US to engage in peacemaking and even put some moderate pressure on Israel as well as the Palestinians to come to an agreement (such as J Street) and the more established lobbying groups who prefer that the US simply give Israel the support it has come to expect in military backing and diplomatic support in international arenas but let Israel handle the Palestinians (as most prominently represented, of course, by AIPAC).
The demonstrations of domestic unease by all three parties to the process only further highlights the causes for pessimism around Kerry’s efforts. Indeed, the Palestinian protests demonstrate the dangers not only in Kerry’s failure but also in the unlikely case of success, where an agreement is struck that is obviously unacceptable to the Palestinian public. That could be an event even more potentially explosive than Kerry’s failure to get an agreement at all.