While Secretary of State John Kerry bemoans the collapse of his peace initiative and holds Israel responsible for its failure, he has mostly himself to blame: from the beginning, his anti-Israel position helped to tip the scales with a narrative and preconceived conditions that were neither fair nor true.
As much as Kerry would like to carry the mantle of peace-maker into history, where so many before him have failed, his mission was a non-starter. Once again, it was the Palestinians who walked away from the table, in a move reminiscent of previous failed attempts at peace in the region. Only Israel made concessions in the talks, agreeing to release 104 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good will, even though the ‘gesture’ will put Israelis at greater risk for the foreseeable the future. The Palestinians offered nothing in return.
Kerry arrived at the negotiations with preconceived notions of what he intended to accomplish, without any understanding of the historical lessons or current cultural context within which he would have to work. His failure to understand the baseline issues not only contributed to his failure, but hardened the positions of both the Israelis and the Palestinians and made any chance for peace in the region less likely than ever.
Ignoring the lessons of history, Kerry brought the same, tired, old no-win solutions to the negotiating table, and this only begins to explain his failure. No less important, he failed to take into account Middle East realities, including the deeply ingrained, often publicly stated mission of Palestinian leadership to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, or Israel’s equally deep commitment to survival as a sovereign Jewish state.
In order to achieve his goal of concluding a peace agreement between the two sides, he maintained the fiction of moral equivalency at the expense of Israel, America’s long-time ally and security partner. He even went so far as to hint at supporting a brewing international boycott of Israeli goods manufactured in the disputed territories, when he spoke at an international security conference in Germany in February. Kerry warned that a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian talks would accelerate this trend and could threaten both Israel’s economic prosperity and its safety.
Kerry should have known that it has been the Palestinians who have consistently walked away from peace talks in the past, and he should have factored that knowledge in his strategic game plan before embarking on yet one more ‘peace mission’. He should have known that the Palestinian mission is to destroy Israel, not to make peace with it.
The Palestinian agenda is no secret. It appears in Palestinian textbooks, where the maps of Palestine obliterate Israel’s existence; on Palestinian official television, where dramas recreate ancient blood libels against the Jews; and in the Palestinian leadership’s messages in Arabic to the press and the Arab world, denying Israel’s right to exist, denying the facts of Jewish history, and vowing deadly vengeance against the Jewish state. PA chief Mahmoud Abbas has sponsored an on-going and ostentatious program of honoring Palestinian terrorists who have murdered Israelis in cold blood, naming streets, schools, and town squares after them.
And finally, Abbas has made it abundantly clear (in Arabic) that he has no intention of accepting Israel as a Jewish state, although this was one of Israel’s primary preconditions.
Ignoring all this, Kerry treated Abbas with a moral equivalence to PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whose people have been the victims of the Palestinian terrorists, although Kerry should have known that no moral equivalent exists.
Kerry should have known that Israel’s willingness to release 126 Palestinian prisoners in the interest of furthering peace, including those guilty of heinous crimes against Israelis, has never worked before. Nearly half of the 13,000 terrorists Israel has released since 1985 have returned to commit crimes of terrorism against Israelis.
Yet once again, the US exerted severe pressure on Israel to release the most dangerous prisoners in Israeli jails, convicted of the most heinous crimes against Israel. All of those to be released were serving life sentences for the murder of Israeli citizens, and had already served at least 19 years in Israeli prisons.
Abbas has also made it clear (in Arabic) that for the Palestinians, the release of prisoners was not a step in the path towards peace; it was the goal of the negotiations. For them, the release of prisoners would not change the mission. Abbas has said he will never concede Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, because a real peace with Israel is not on their agenda. When Abbas’ plan became clear to the Israelis, to quit the peace talks once the final release was accomplished, and when he broke his word yet again by unilaterally returning to the UN to seek recognition as a state, Israel canceled the release of the final 26 prisoners, which would have freed some of the most infamous terrorists incarcerated in Israel.
The reality that Kerry should have seen from the beginning was that peace with Israel is not on the Palestinian agenda. Historically, every peace initiative has ended without peace, and it has been the Palestinians who walked away from the table every time. It has always been the Palestinians who have sent suicide bombers into crowds of Israeli men, women, and children, and the Israelis who have responded – appropriately – with sufficient force to protect their citizens. There is no moral equivalency here.
For the Israelis, returning to the 1967 borders has not been an option for a long time. Netanyahu made that abundantly clear to President Obama in their infamous meeting at the White House in 2011, after Obama stated explicitly that Israel’s future boundaries must be based on the 1967 borders. Netanyahu publicly and firmly countered that today’s technology has made these boundaries, only nine miles wide in the center of the country, unsurvivable in a 21st century war. In the most recent negotiations, this demand should have been off the table before discussions ever began.
Today, Israel’s most urgent mission is not peace with the Palestinians; it is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. For Israelis, the Iranian nuclear threat is not theoretical, but existential. Unchecked Iranian nuclear power could unleash a second Holocaust, raining nuclear annihilation on more than six million Israeli Jews (and a million and a half Muslims and Christians as well). Iran has made no secret of its determination to destroy Israel totally.
Kerry should have taken all of this into account before he engaged Israel in the distraction of Mid East ‘peace talks’ with the Palestinians.
The fundamental cultural, historical, ideological, and strategic realities dividing the Israelis and the Palestinians are stubborn and have a very long history. It will take far more than promises and threats by the US to bring the sides together. If the Obama administration ever hopes to overcome these difficulties, it first needs to stop trying to bully Israel, and understand clearly the Palestinians’ disinclination to achieve a peaceful settlement with their Jewish neighbors.
For any kind of peace to exist, the revisionist history of the Palestinians and the fundamental, existential threats against Israel must be overcome. Until that happens, if it ever does, there is little chance for meaningful peace between them. Any government interested in entering the breach had better have a keener understanding of the issues and the players than John Kerry brought to the table.
Ilana Freedman is an intelligence-analyst and independent consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org