Kerry in the Mideast: Tilting at Windmills

by Mitchell Plitnick

Who is John Kerry trying to fool?

His repeated trips to the Middle East have produced no change in the status quo and prevented neither the resignation of the US’ golden boy in Palestine, Salam Fayyad, nor Turkish Prime Minister Trecip Erdogan’s planned visit to Gaza. But he remains determined to bring peace to the Middle East. His urgent warning to Congress that the opportunity for a two-state solution has only one to two years of life left was meant to ignite a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.

If this was some other Secretary of State, one might think he just needs to learn about the Israel-Palestine conflict (and he’s got a harsh lesson coming), but Kerry knows the dynamics of this issue very well. He spent 28 years in the Senate, including the last four as the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He managed to rise to that position despite having been more vocal than most in Congress (though that’s a very low bar) in opposing settlements.

Kerry was visibly shaken when he returned from Gaza in 2009, and his attention to some of the excesses of the Israeli blockade, like the barring of pasta from the Strip (because we all know the terrifying dual uses that can be put to), helped rein some of them in. None of this made a huge difference in either the political situation or the daily lives of Palestinians, but it does reflect a US politician who is far from a novice in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That image is reinforced by the fact that despite these substantive acts, which could not have been greeted warmly in the offices of AIPAC and other parts of the Israel Lobby, Kerry’s nomination as Secretary of State met virtually no opposition, in stark contrast to his colleague, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

I’ve never spoken with John Kerry, but I got to know his staff on the Foreign Relations Committee pretty well. I was left with no doubt that Kerry had a pretty good grasp of the conflict, the Lobby and what was possible in the halls of power in Washington. Kerry is no fool and he’s neither ignorant about the Israel-Palestine conflict and its attendant politics nor is he naïve.

But it’s not easy to square those facts with his opening blitz on this issue. I spoke off the record with someone who knows Kerry and his thinking earlier this week and he told me Kerry is sincere about going all out to finally resolve this conflict. That certainly seems to be the case based on Kerry’s two trips to the region already and his plea for congressional backing at the hearing at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.

Which leads to the conclusion that the person John Kerry is really fooling is himself. With his experience, his solid working relationships — not only with regional leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, but also with key figures in the Israel Lobby and the US Jewish community — and his long and consistent support for a two-state solution, he believes he can do, within a one to two year period, what all those before him have failed to accomplish.

The early returns, predictably enough, do not bear Kerry’s faith out. Almost immediately after Kerry left Israel, Netanyahu, mindful that he has lost significant support in Israel for his poor relationship with Barack Obama and not wanting to directly insult the Secretary of State, had one of his top aides anonymously tell the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Israel was rejecting Kerry’s proposed framework for renewing talks with the Palestinians. Shortly thereafter, Abbas accepted the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a particularly pointed development since Kerry had stressed Palestinian economic development as the key step in bringing the two sides back to the table. Fayyad has long been the point man for building the Palestinian economy, but it remains propped up by international donations. The Palestinians, correctly reading Kerry’s proposal as an echo of Netanyahu’s plan for “economic peace,” made it clear that political progress is what is needed for economic growth, not the reverse.

It didn’t end there. Kerry hoped to build on Obama’s success in breaking the impasse between Israel and Turkey by convincing Turkish PM Erdogan to postpone his planned to trip to Gaza next month. Erdogan refused, and Kerry was criticized for trying to dictate to Turkey how it should handle its foreign relations. Finally, a quiet project aimed at producing a summit that would bring the US, Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan, with the possible participation of other Arab countries together in June, was rejected loudly and out of hand by Israel, forcing the US to deny it was even trying this.

In short, it has been business as usual in Israel-Palestine diplomacy. Kerry is surely as aware as anyone that re-unifying the Palestinian leadership is crucial to any hope of an agreement, but he is bound by US and Israeli policy that refuses to deal not only with Hamas but with any Palestinian government that Hamas is a player in. Turkey is aware of the same thing, but is not bound by it, and Erdogan wants to position himself as the man who can make something happen in this realm.

Israel’s new government is dominated by rejectionists and Netanyahu is not going to be conciliatory unless he can demonstrate that the United States is leaving him no choice; the Israel Lobby ensures that won’t happen. The Palestinians, for their part, cannot afford to return to talks without some signal that Israel will leave something to negotiate over, in other words, a settlement freeze and some gesture on Palestinian prisoners.

These circumstances aren’t changing, and they have already formed a brick wall that Kerry has run headlong into. His message to Congress was just empty air. He’s telling them that the US position is going to have to change in order for him to be able to do anything. Well, that has always been true, whether the Secretary of State was named Clinton, Rice, Powell, Albright or Christopher. Congress’ recent behavior gives no indication that they are willing to move far afield from the Lobby. Again, no change.

By the end of the year, will Kerry be willing to admit that the two-state solution is dead? Perhaps, and maybe that was what he was telling Congress: I’m not going to work on this for my whole term as Secretary. But if John Kerry truly believes that he’s going to be able to break this impasse with his skills and experience alone, he is in for as rude an awakening as his boss was when he tried to get Netanyahu to freeze settlements in his first term.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.


One Comment

  1. Kerry is caught in the trap of “allowed discourse” on Israel.

    People-Who-Count are allowed, in the USA, in politics and MSM media, to complain in a mild sort of way about, e.g. settlements, but proposing actual action (that is, proposing that the USA, the UNSC, the EU, or even Cuba actively actually act rather than merely blather, talk, complain, kvetsch) is contrary to the received wisdom, the rules of “allowed discourse” in the USA.

    Who makes these rules? How can there be a politics wherein truth-telling is barely tolerated and proposing action is forbidden? Some people think AIPAC may play a rule in the promulgation and enforcement of these rules, but, in any case, these ARE the rules.

    And Kerry is caught. As a diplomat, the mowst he can do, it seems, is secret diplomacy whereby (for instance) 19 former Eurocrats recently decried EU’s policy w.r.t. Israel, although they too failed to propose that anyone act to compel Israel to do anything — e.g., end the occupation, end the siege of Gaza, roll-back the settlemetn project.

    Whatever Kerry or anyone else wishes to accomplish in the Israel/Palestine sphere, mere words will not accomplish it. It is not known if Israel responds well to force (boycott, sanctions, etc.) because it has never been tried, but it is clear that israel is not moved, is never moved, by anyone’s mere words.

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