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John Kerry's First Peace Effort in Israel and Palestine Failed, But Now He Needs to Try Again

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Last Sunday, Arizona Senator John McCain urged President Obama to send Secretary of State John Kerry to Israel to prevent the conflict there from “spiraling out of control.” J Street, which actively promotes negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, has called on Kerry to issue a blueprint for a two-state solution. But Kerry is in China for a “strategic and economic dialogue,” and State Department officials insist that it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations. Asked about the idea of the United States putting out its own plan, one official, speaking on background, said, “There are no good historical examples of this working.”

Is the United States reneging on its global responsibilities? American diplomacy could probably contribute to a ceasefire in Gaza between the Israeli government and Hamas, neither of which appear enthusiastic about continued escalation there, but as the earlier failure of negotiations over Palestinian statehood showed, even the most energetic American efforts are unlikely to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the cycle of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. The United States would have to go from proposing a framework to the parties to imposing one—and even if an American administration could overcome the domestic opposition to do that, it still might not hold.

A Timeline of the Current Conflict

The current conflict, like many of the previous ones, has consisted of a series of responses and counter-responses. The question of who provoked whom is itself part of the conflict. Here is the timeline, as best as I can tell. Negotiations over a Palestinian state ended on April first, when Mahmoud Abbas, in response to the Israeli refusal to release, as promised, 104 Palestinian prisoners, and to the announcement of 700 new apartments in East Jerusalem, declared that the Palestinian Authority would apply for membership in 15 United Nations organizations.

On April 23, Abbas’s Fatah Party and Hamas announced their intention to form a unity government composed of technocrats rather than party officials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted angrily, breaking off the negotiations that had already collapsed, but blaming Abbas for their breakdown, and seeking to punish the Palestinian Authority for the move. After the Unity government was assembled on June 1, and sworn in, the Israeli government announced plans for 3,300 new housing units in the West Bank.

There was tension over the next days—including a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners, a Palestinian teenager killed by Israeli policy at a Nakba Day demonstration, and an occasional rocket fired at Israel from Gaza by an outlier group not under Hamas’s control. Then on June 12, three Jewish teenagers from a settlement were kidnapped and murdered. The perpetrators have still not been caught, but Israeli officials suspect two Hamas members from Hebron. Hamas’s political and military leadership denied involvement in the attack, and there is reason to believe them: The suspects were members of a Hebron clan that had previously staged attacks against Israelis contrary to Hamas ceasefire agreements.

The Israeli government seems to have known after a day or two that the kidnappers had murdered the three boys, but it continued to insist publicly—and the press was under a gag order not to contradict them—that the boys were still alive. Their bodies were finally uncovered and the murder publicly confirmed on June 30. The government was also informed almost immediately about the disappearance of the two suspects from Hebron, but during this time, the Israelis went on the offensive against Hamas throughout the West Bank. Over 600 Palestinians were arrested and more than 1,500 homes, schools, and places of business were raided. The army arrested and imprisoned 51 Hamas members who had been included in the deal freeing hostage Gilad Shalit. The police even raided Birzeit University, arresting two pro-Hamas students and confiscating Hamas flags and literature.

On July 2, a group of Israelis kidnapped and burned alive a Palestinian boy. Six suspects were arrested, and three have confessed. That prompted demonstrations among Palestinians in Israel and in East Jerusalem. At a demonstration, or his uncle’s home—the details are still murky—the police arrested and brutally beat a Palestinian American who was the 16-year-old cousin of the murdered boy. That brought a protest from the State Department. Then on July 6, the Israeli air force bombed a tunnel in Gaza, killing six Hamas men. Before that, there had been sporadic rocket attacks against Israeli from outlier groups, but afterwards, Hamas took responsibility for and increased the rocket attacks against Israel, and the Israeli government launched “Operation Protective Edge” against Hamas in Gaza. The Israelis are now bombarding Gaza, while Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza are launching rockets, most of which are intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile system.

In summary, the fuse was lit for this latest conflagration by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli and one Palestinian teenager. But horrific acts like these have, sadly, always been a part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu also played a role by using the investigation into the kidnapping as the pretext for attempting to destroy the Fatah-Hamas unity government. (Those who find this a reasonable objective should consider that the Netanyahu government and party contain high officials who want to deny Palestinians the right of self-determination.)

Abbas has, typically, tried to play a moderating role. Speaking in Saudi Arabia to an Arab audience, Abbas condemned the kidnapping of the Israeli teens. But Hamas deserves part of the blame for the escalation. While denying Hamas’s role in the kidnapping, Hamas leader Khalid Mashal said that Palestinians should “applaud and take our hats off” to the kidnappers. Hamas’s rocket attacks (like Netanyahu’s attempt to destroy the unity government) have a strategic rationale. These attacks rarely hit targets, but they provoke a furious Israeli response that leads to hundreds of casualties and deaths, including women and children who have no direct connection with Hamas. These attacks rouse sympathy for Hamas in Europe and among the Arab states and can lead to welcome financial contributions and to the isolation of the Israeli government, but they come at an enormous cost to the people Hamas represents.

What can the United States do?

For once, McCain is right. A little “shuttle diplomacy” by Kerry probably could help prevent a protracted conflict. Netanyahu knows that he can’t finally eliminate Hamas in Gaza except by actions that would bring the wrath of nations down upon Israel. Israeli officials refer obscenely to the periodic assault on Gaza as “mowing the lawn.” Mashal, too, would like to limit the damage to his people and to Gaza. But to date, the only Washington official who is speaking publicly in Israel is the National Security Council Middle East expert Phillip Gordon, who criticized the Israeli occupation at a conference in Tel Aviv. But Gordon was not there, it seems. to mediate the conflict.

Kerry is probably right, however, in resisting another effort at renewing the peace process. Kerry and his negotiators made serious mistakes during the negotiations earlier this year—most notably, they tried to work out terms of a framework with the Israelis without concurrently talking to the Palestinians. Abbas, presented with a fait accompli, balked. But that wasn’t the main reason Kerry’s effort failed. The main reason, as Kerry’s people indicated to Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea (before they later tried to walk the story back), was Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s government kept announcing new housing starts in the occupied territories, inflaming the Palestinians. He made minor concessions in negotiations, but wouldn’t budge on specifying the borders of a Palestinian state; he wouldn’t limit the time for an Israeli occupation force in the Jordan Valley; and he wouldn’t discuss allowing a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. Jerusalem lawyer Danny Seidemann, whom the Kerry team consulted, said in a press briefing, “When my prime minister says that I support the two-state solution, but I oppose any compromise on Jerusalem, there is a literal transition for that. I oppose the two state solution.” His convictions aside, Netanyahu was hampered by his own coalition. To give ground in the negotiations, and even in the end to keep his promise of releasing the prisoners, he would have had to create a new majority coalition, which he was unwilling to do.

The United States can influence Israeli politics. It can threaten to withhold economic or military assistance. The Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush administrations were able to use these kind of threats to force concessions. But the Obama administration appears completely unwilling to undertake this kind of diplomacy toward Israel. Obama and Kerry know that if they tried to withhold aid, they would face an immense uproar on Capitol Hill. J Street has acquired some clout among liberal Democrats, but what support AIPAC and the other groups that back Netanyahu have lost among Democrats, they have more than made up among Republicans.

And if Obama and Kerry wanted to restart negotiations, they would also have a problem with the Palestinian side. Abbas has been a receptive negotiating partner – he made significant concessions during the talks with the Israelis, including agreeing to an Israeli army presence in the Jordan Valley for up to five years – but he is increasingly hampered by old age and illness. As a result of the negotiation’s failure, and the cooperation of the Palestinian Authority’s security force with the Israelis, Abbas has also become increasingly unpopular. One Fatah official estimated his support among Palestinians as ten percent. But he has no replacement in sight.

Hamas has a political base in the West Bank as well as Gaza. In May, Hamas got 40 percent of the vote in the highly politicized university student council elections in the West Bank. These are a good test of support among the most active Palestinians. But Hamas is crippled by the loss of funding from Egypt, Syria, and Iran. In the unity government, it was willing to accept Abbas’s leadership in negotiations with the Israelis, but it does not appear ready on its own to undertake negotiations aimed at ending the conflict with Israel. It may change—the PLO, after all, changed its charter to accept Israel’s existence—but not in the immediate future. The United States lacks an effective negotiating partner either among the Israelis or Palestinians.

Analogies are always treacherous but maybe this one makes sense: In the United States in the ‘60s, the conflict over civil rights had turned violent. Race riots occurred in major cities. But stepping back, one could believe that after the fires were put out and smoke cleared, Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement would carry the day. History was moving in that direction. It is hard to feel the same way about what is happening in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel, of course, has its equivalent of the Northern liberal Democrats who backed the civil rights movement; polls even indicate a majority support for a two-state solution. But the movement on the ground—the inexorable increase of West Bank and East Jerusalem settlers, the four-decade old turn toward conservatism and away from European social democracy, the incendiary sentiments among the ultra-orthodox and the settlers—are creating a growing political base against any accommodation. There is no Lyndon Johnson nor Martin Luther King in sight. The war between Jew and Arab, which began early in the last century, goes on, and there doesn’t seem much that the United States can do about it.