Sunday, April 06, 2014

US has erred, but talks are vital

Boaz Bismuth

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is facing a difficult dilemma: whether to back down from his overzealous promise (a peace deal within nine months), or to stick to it -- possibly in the company of hopeless Israelis and Palestinians, and maybe even without the support of President Barack Obama, who doesn't want to chalk up another international failure and could abandon Kerry on the battlefield.
If there is no dramatic development, "John Kerry's Adventures in the Middle East" will be remembered in history books more for their number (12 visits in recent months, just to reach an agreement) and less for their quality. It's hard to put all the blame on the secretary of state; many before him failed in the same task.
But Kerry's mistake was the naiveté he brought to the most complicated conflict in the world, as former U.S. President Bill Clinton called it during his time in office. Kerry's sin was the high bar he set, and his failure is also one of obsessive stubbornness.

Kerry also erred when he involved Washington a little too deeply in the negotiations themselves. At times he seemed more like a babysitter for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas than a mediator. Experience has taught us that the Israelis and Palestinians should be left to themselves. This wouldn't guarantee a deal, but it would promise much more productive talks. This three-way tango hasn't proven itself, since the way the Palestinians see it, the Americans automatically side with Israel.
American commentator Charles Krauthammer has never been particularly charitable toward the Obama administration. This weekend he raked Kerry over the coals. As far as Krauthammer is concerned, Kerry failed in the way he tackled the Syrian issue at the Geneva conferences (Assad stayed in power); Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea); and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (no agreement, and it's not sure talks will be extended.) Krauthammer forgot to mention Kerry's "achievement" on the Iranian nuclear issue last November in Geneva. Kerry welcomed a deal that Obama himself admitted had only a 50 percent chance of succeeding.
Obama is backing his secretary of state, but has every reason in the world to be angry with him, an American source told The New York Times. The Syrian crisis that fell on Obama's head is one thing, the annexation of Crimea found the Americans and its NATO allies without any plan in reserve, and the Iranian issue found the U.S. in particular and the world in general without any desire or ability for a military intervention. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which every kid in the region knows is an impossible matter?!
Now it seems that Kerry has understood that extending the talks by a year (which might happen) while Abbas remains in power is a great coup. If Kerry didn't have his own official plane, we might think he was visiting so often to rack up frequent flier miles.
At any rate, negotiations should continue -- because it's best for both sides, and because the alternatives are worse, and especially because the chance of a vacuum is dangerous. Maybe we should just lower our expectations.

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