More “barrel bombs” fell on Syrian cities this week; besieged civilians are still starving in the suburbs of Damascus. Egypt’s military regime persists in its attempt to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and, with it, any prospect of a return to democracy by the United States’ most important Arab ally. Lebanon and Iraq are reeling from new assassinations and sectarian conflict.
So where in the world is John Kerry? In peaceful Jerusalem and Ramallah, piling more chips on his long-shot bet that he will broker a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
How to understand this extraordinary choice of priorities? Some argue, as I have, that it is a quasi-delusional bid for a legacy by a former senator and presidential candidate who, at 70, has convinced only himself that he can succeed where so many other would-be peace brokers have failed.
An alternative view is that Kerry is shrewdly applying his political talents where they are most likely to have an effect under a president who has all but destroyed U.S. credibility in the Middle East. At least Israelis and Palestinians, the logic goes, remain wary of defying a secretary of state.
The long history of Middle East “peace process” failures, and the known characters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, make it considerably more likely that the cynics will be proved right. But some smart people I know are beginning to hedge their bets against Kerry, if only because he is pursuing a tactically wiser course than President Barack Obama did in his first term.
Obama, too, thought he would be the one to author Middle East peace and confidently gave himself a two-year deadline. But his strategy was disastrously misguided. He made freezing Israeli settlement construction the focal point of U.S. diplomacy and calculated that a public confrontation with Netanyahu would bring it about. He succeeded only in poisoning his relationship with the Israeli leader, who cruised to re-election last year while continuing to expand settlements. Obama’s effort yielded only a handful of sterile meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Kerry has already done better than that, thanks to his return to traditional U.S. methods for managing Israeli leaders. He has talked to Netanyahu in private, with relatively few leaks. He has sidestepped the toxic settlement issue, rightly regarding it as a sideshow. And he has quietly embraced Netanyahu’s two opening demands – that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that they accept an extended presence of Israeli troops on their territory. The calculation is that doing so might leverage Israeli concessions that would tempt Abbas.
It became clear this week that Kerry has also modified his wildly unrealistic goal of completing the deal by the end of April. Although his aides say that is still the aim, he has shifted toward trying to win Netanyahu and Abbas’ agreement for a “framework” that would spell out the general principles, but not the details, of a final settlement. That might allow for an agreement that would break new ground, give both sides a reason to extend the negotiations for six months or a year and allow Kerry to declare a diplomatic victory.
Israelis and Palestinians have signed on to U.S.-sponsored frameworks before, most recently the “road map” of George W. Bush. But Kerry’s aim is to produce one that would cover more substance. Most likely it would include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the stationing of Israeli troops near the Jordanian border and language that excludes a mass “return” of Palestinian refugees to Israel. In exchange, Netanyahu would be expected to swallow the principles that the territory of Palestine would be based on Israel’s 1967 borders and that its capital would be in Jerusalem.
The potential beauty of this framework is that it would lay the groundwork for the fundamental concessions each side would make without plunging into the details, where many devils lurk. It’s conceivable, for example, that Netanyahu could accept the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations; far less imaginable is an Israeli-Palestinian accord by April on where, exactly, the border would lie. Israelis might accept the notion of “Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital” with a remote suburb in mind even as Palestinians picture themselves as sovereign in the Old City.
The problem with this is that it still requires bold and courageous decisions from two men who have built their political lives on caution and procrastination. Presiding over shaky islands of calm in a turmoil-wracked Middle East, threatened equally by domestic hard-liners and external enemies, Abbas and Netanyahu have every reason to avoid any genuinely substantive deal, even on a “framework.” Unlike John Kerry, they have a lot to lose.
Jackson Diehl is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. This is a replacement column while Fareed Zakaria is on vacation.