Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Obama, Kerry and their aspirations

One cannot help but be impressed with the focus of the Obama administration with the Middle East, despite expectations that the region would be left to its own miserable self. 

Both Kerry and Obama have spent time with the Saban Forum, trying again to convince Jewish doubters about Iran and Palestine.

Kerry has come eight times as secretary of state.

Talks with the Palestinians ought to be described as the Kerry talks, given his role in getting them started, his tireless prodding of the principals, and his persistent claims of progress. 

Each visit has involved repeated meetings with Netanyahu, Abbas, and other ranking Israelis and Palestinians. 

We have not heard the term “shuttle.” 

One reason may be to down play the anticipations associated with its use by Henry Kissinger, and his successes. 

A more profound reason may lie in the hopelessness of the present talks. Kissinger was dealing with established governments, whose leaders could make agreements and discipline their underlings to go along. That only marks one of the sides in these conversations. The Palestinians are troubled not only by Gaza, but their dependence on who knows how many competitive leaders of Muslim countries and enough internal squabbles in the tiny West Bank to make national leadership and discipline something to dream about, and unlikely to achieve anytime soon, if at all. 

Why the American obsession with these talks at this time, when Israel and Palestine comprise such a small part of the State Department’s responsibilities, and clearly offer no key to the region? 

The violence (not concerned with Palestine) in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt, and the Shiite-Sunni conflict focused on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States would seem to preclude any Palestinian daring to concede anything toward Israel, for fear of being abandoned by one or all of its patrons who provide political support and cash for Palestinian public services and the overseas bank accounts of well connected Palestinians 

The issue of Palestine is worn out as a slogan among Muslims much busier killing one another. The Lebanese and Syrian hosts of those who have been calling themselves refugees for 65 years are more than tired of their role. Palestinian communities have been suffering at least as much as any other ethnic cluster in Syria and Lebanon. The current Egyptian regime has declared that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are its enemies, and have shut the gates to any movement out of Gaza to Egypt. 

Explanations for the American fascination with Palestine include associations with mystical attractions of the Holy Land, the power of Muslim governments in international forums, and Americans’ continued acceptance of what others seem to be ignoring while fighting one another, i.e., the centrality of the Palestinian issue as the way to produce stability in the Middle East. 

This is not a field for hard science. We can identify the elements likely to stimulate American passions, without being certain about the weight of each. 

Kerry wants to talk about moving along the talks about Palestine. This time he has come with proposals, or more vague ideas said to be put together by 160 American experts. One cannot use the term “American proposal” without ratcheting up opposition to any “dictates.” 

Netanyahu wants to hear only about Iran. 

President Obama has estimated that there is a 50 percent chance of success coming out of the Geneva agreement to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

He may already have a speech conceding his failure, which he may deliver on a golf course a year or two into retirement. “Gee, folks, I tried my best. One can never be certain about these things. But the chances associated with diplomacy are always more desirable than the chances associated with war.”

Among the ideas about Palestine that have leaked out are of an American proposal to put foreign troops in the Jordan Valley. There is a retired American general who is certain about his capacity to assure Israel’s security.

Israelis are less than enthusiastic. We know the record of foreign troops after Lebanon II, and the more distant history of the Sinai and Nasser. Various Palestinians have already rejected the idea, but Mahmoud Abbas has talked about the possibility of accepting NATO troops, while rejecting any idea of Israeli troops remaining in what he claims for Palestine. 

Courtesy, and even mutual praise has been more apparent at the latest Kerry-Netanyahu meeting than the previous instance of icy disagreement and no photo-op handshake. The prime minister expressed his hope that negotiations would deal with the Iranian threat, and Kerry conceded the Israelis’ right to be suspicious and critical of what has been agreed to so far. 

At the same time as Kerry was saying “trust us on Iran,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was visiting Gulf States with the same message. 

One should not exaggerate the level of confidence in American efforts by calling it “low,” either in Jerusalem or among the Sunni Muslim rulers. 

While the American chief diplomat has been in Jerusalem, the Israeli chief diplomat has been in Washington.  

That by itself suggests a lack of optimism about anything coming out of these talks with the Palestinians.  

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been careful to preserve his new found image of moderation. He has not damned talks with the Palestinians as a waste of time, but has expressed the view that they are not likely to solve everything and produce a final agreement. He has said that it is important to keep talking. He has left the door open to progress, and something like another interim agreement. Yet his presence in the U.S. while the supposed action is in Jerusalem and Ramallah is not encouraging.  

Lieberman said that the issue of trust between Israelis and Palestinians is more important than the substance of refugees or security. His bottom line is damning by any interpretation. “Now the level of trust is at zero.” 

Tzipi Livni may describe herself as hard at work and moving along with the Palestinians, but she labors under the stain of the Lebanese cease fire she negotiated, which has allowed massive shipments of munitions to Hezbollah. This time she is being kept on a leash, with an aide of Netanyahu sitting in all the discussions. 

None of the ranking Palestinians or Israelis want to say an overt No to John Kerry who has worked so hard, ostensibly in their behalf. However, many of the Palestinians view Kerry as an Israeli lackey, while Israelis view him and his boss as naive on Palestine and on Iran. 

All told, it is not a time to expect much. Except perhaps for yet another Kerry statement about progress. In private he may be kicking a wastebasket or yelling at an underling.

Ira Sharkansky is professor (Emeritus) at the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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