John Kerry's Risky Peace Gamble

John Kerry's Risky Peace Gamble

Exposing the U.S. framework for peace between Israel and Palestine would be an explosive move.

In preparing a U.S. plan for breaking the long impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry threatens to clarify positions and issues long shrouded in ambiguity. U.S. negotiators have generally avoided offering prescriptive American positions or U.S. bridging proposals precisely because they tend to reveal significant gaps between Washington’s vision of a two-state solution, and the aspirations of the two parties. By risking it now Kerry is conceding that the window for a negotiated peace is rapidly closing, and both the Israelis and Palestinians remain utterly incapable of making the necessary concessions on their own.

Certainly hardliners on both sides understand that a U.S. framework for peace significantly ratchets up the pressure to compromise. That’s the subtext to Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon's comments last month that Kerry is “inexplicably obsessive” and “messianic” in his quest for a peace agreement, and that his plan is “not worth the paper it is printed on.” When Kerry recently stated the obvious, noting that failure to reach a deal will likely increase Israel’s isolation and the risk of more European boycotts of Israeli products, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs Yuval Steinitz called the comments “hurtful,” “unfair,” and “intolerable.” “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head,” he told Israel Radio.

“With the original nine-month deadline for talks approaching in April, Kerry’s plan is perceived by all sides as a ‘take it or leave it’ prescription from America, and for that reason an outright rejection of it is unlikely because no one wants to suffer the consequences of causing the collapse of the peace talks,” said Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, which advocates for a two-state solution to the conflict. “But the Israeli right in particular feels pressured by the framework, and they have mounted an intense ‘Do Not Succumb to Kerry’ campaign.”

For all the fear and pushback, the forthcoming “Kerry Plan” will seem familiar to anyone who studied earlier U.S. proposals such as the “Clinton Parameters,” and George W. Bush-embraced “roadmap for peace.” The framework will reportedly call for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank based roughly on pre-1967 lines, with land swaps in order to incorporate major West Bank settlements into Israel proper; call on Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and forego the right of major refugee returns to Israel, in exchange for Israel agreeing that Arab East Jerusalem serve as the capital of Palestine; and include detailed security arrangements for the strategic Jordan Valley.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears deeply conflicted about the framework. He’s at once resentful of the constant prodding of Kerry (whose trips to the region are already in the double digits), yet mindful that the status quo of a democratic and Jewish state that occupies the territory of millions of Arab Palestinians is not sustainable in the long run. Netanyahu also understands that his acceptance of the U.S. framework could shake his rightwing political coalition.

“There’s no doubt that when Kerry points out that failure of the peace talks will have consequences, such as a European boycott of Israel or a third intifada, Netanyahu and the Israeli political establishment view that as pressure from the United States,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former Middle East adviser to six U.S. presidents. On the other hand, he notes, Netanyahu can claim to have gotten three things from the Kerry framework that no other Israeli Prime Minister has ever received: detailed security arrangements for the Jordan Valley, and U.S. acceptance of the Israeli positions that a peace agreement must recognize the Jewish nature of Israel, and not include the right of return to Israel of Palestinian refugees.

“On the issue of Jerusalem serving as the capital of both states, and a deal based loosely on pre-1967 borders, the U.S. position is closer to the Palestinians,” said Miller, author of the book The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. “On those issues it’s unclear to me what formula Netanyahu is prepared to accept, but there will probably be enough wiggle room in the framework to keep talks alive. Kerry will get his piece of paper: it remains to be seen how consequential it ultimately proves.”

There’s a truism often used to explain decades of failed diplomacy to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the United States cannot want peace more than the two parties. With his high-energy diplomacy and high-risk framework, Kerry is testing the proposition and telling the world that the United States still wants a peace agreement quite a bit. And if the Israelis or Palestinians are willing to risk less for peace, they should be ready to accept the consequences.

James Kitfield has written on foreign policy and national security issues from Washington, D.C. for over two decades as a contributing editor and former senior correspondent for National Journal, publishing hundreds of magazine features and web stories and reporting from dozens of countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa. His reporting has won numerous awards, including three Gerald R. Ford Awards for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense; five Distinguished Reporting Awards from the Military Reporters and Editors Association and Medill School of Journalism; and a National Press Club Award for Diplomatic Correspondence.