As he settles into his new office at the State Department, John Kerry has already begun to move on what he has said will be an early priority: reinvigorating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Reuters reports that Obama is not underwriting a strong push, that he will “proceed cautiously and let Kerry . . . take soundings for any fresh effort. That could allow Obama to avoid investing too much personal capital in a fresh effort until there was a prospect of real progress.”
This soft approach will not succeed. It might not even get far enough to be a failure. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are in a position to seek peace. The critics of Netanyahu’s 2009 speech offering a two-state solution are in the ascendancy in Israel, and the ongoing instability in the neighborhood gives few a desire to allow the Palestinian Authority more sovereignty. Meanwhile, Palestine continues live under two governments, leaving nobody with the authority and deep legitimacy needed to make, on behalf of the Palestinian people, the wrenching concessions on issues like the right of return that will be a component of any major deal. The Israelis don’t want to talk; the Palestinians can’t talk.
Any peace bid in this context would be troubled. The United States is an outside power in the Levant; it is easy for us to want peace when we aren’t accruing most of the costs of a deal. It is a bit naive to believe that such a state, however strong, could settle a foreign conflict rooted in incompatible interests on its own. Still, Washington has the ability to shape the discussion and cajole the two sides back to the table, provided both know that they will face the wrath of the president if they impede talks. Obama is not making such a threat, and Kerry, for all his gravitas, lacks the power to do so. Worse still, progress in the peace process would create new domestic pressures which Kerry would struggle to manage without his boss’s support. There is a danger that Kerry’s first big initiative will thus fail, weakening him and diluting America’s diplomatic power. A few bridges with Israel might burn, which could have knock-on effects on the dispute with Iran; a failed negotiation could spark an intifada.
We can only hope, then, that this is merely a pro forma peace push, and that Kerry has the judgment to discreetly fold a bad hand rather than betting big on a bluff. The secretary of state is one of America’s most powerful officials, and accordingly can resolve many matters without involving the president. The peace process, however, is not such a matter. The president must take leadership, indicating that he considers it a central priority and empowering his lieutenants to act boldly on his behalf. Otherwise peace will remain stuck in neutral.