John Kerry: From Mr. Bean’s Ultimate Disaster to Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s carefully worded statement about the resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians “uncovers a handbreadth but conceals two handbreadths” as the Talmud puts it.

Indeed, until more details are known, the interpretation of the precise words that Kerry used in Amman are worthy of the kind of hairsplitting debate that the Talmud excels at. There may be less there than meets the eye.

1. Kerry says that the sides have “reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming talks”, which isn’t exactly the same as an agreement on talks themselves.

2. Kerry uses the term “resuming”, which signals a continuity of a process rather than the start of a new one. The last time Israelis and Palestinians conducted formal final status talks was under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But his successor Benjamin Netanyahu has formally rejected the proposals that Olmert made at the time to Mahmoud Abbas.

3. Kerry said “the challenges require some very tough choices it the days ahead.” This bit comes from two sides who have repeatedly made clear in recent years that what they hate doing the most is “making tough choices.” And tough choices are always a good way of making “days ahead” last forever.

4. Kerry’s additional caveat “if things go as expected,” is even more disheartening. When things go as expected between Israelis and Palestinians, there’s usually a bad ending. Kerry should have said that talks will take place if, contrary to all expectations, they don’t fall apart before.

What a difference a day makes

For now, however, Kerry’s image has undergone a complete makeover in just 24 hours. From being the bumbling and clueless secretary of state wasting everyone’s time with his futile efforts to restart a process that is doomed in any case, Kerry is suddenly cast as the dogged and determined diplomat who ingeniously corralled his interlocutors and took them to the place where they didn’t want to go.

One day he’s Mr. Bean in The Ultimate Disaster Movie, the next he’s Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

One can therefore expect a quick changeover in the arsenal of adjectives that the media routinely uses to describe Kerry. He will no longer be the clueless, obsessed, inexperienced novice wasting everyone’s time in pursuit of pie-in-the-sky Israeli-Palestinian peace while the Middle East burns around him. Henceforth – at least until his efforts collapse – Kerry is the wily, resolute, single-minded statesman who defied his detractors and silenced his critics by doing what everyone said couldn’t be done.

His new motto? “I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my way in the end,” as the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher once said.

Anything you can do, I can do better

Kerry succeeded where both his predecessor Hillary Clinton and his superior, President Barack Obama, failed. His secret, according to Israeli analyst Ehud Yaari, was that he “embraced” Netanyahu in private, rather than confronting and challenging him in public, as both Obama and Clinton did.

Of course, one would have to have an exceptionally devious Machiavellian mind to suspect that it was one-upmanship, rather than coincidence that brought Obama to the White House press room just moments before Kerry made his statement in Amman.

In any case, the president’s dramatic, personal statement on Trayvon Martin and race relations in America upstaged Kerry completely. Reports of the breakthrough in Amman were relegated to one-liners at the half-hour break before we get back to our panel discussion of what Obama meant when he said that it could have been him confronting George Zimmerman.

And if Kate Middleton gives birth over the weekend, as she is expected, by Monday we will be back to “Kerry, Who?”

The Devil is In the Details

At this point, it is far from clear what the sides agreed to in order to facilitate the talks. According to Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, the basis for the talks will be in the eye of the beholder: the Palestinians will say '67 borders, Israel will cite recognition of Jewish state, Kerry will include both in his invitation to the talks and work will then begin on squaring the circle.

Although it has yet to be confirmed, it seems likely that the United States will resort to a tactic used in the past to persuade Israel and the Palestinians to come to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference. In addition to the invitation formulated by then Secretary of State James Baker but formally issued by President George H. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, the US also supplied Israel and the Palestinians with “Letters of Assurances” that detailed American positions and provided guarantees concerning the conduct and progress of the bilateral talks that were to be held thereafter.

In exchange for agreeing to participate as part of joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation (that would circumvent Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the PLO), the US promised the Palestinians that the purpose of the talks was to “end the occupation”, that the US “does not recognize the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem” and that it opposes “and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territory occupied in 1967.”

In their letter to Israel, the Americans pledged not to compel Israel to negotiate with the PLO and to oppose the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The United States added, however – in its letter to Israel (!) - “Neither do we support the continuation of the Israeli rule or annexation of the Occupied Territories.”

From which one can deduce both diametrically opposed conclusions: A. That a lot of things have changed over the past 22 years, from the pre-Oslo, pre-PA, pre-Camp David times and B. The more they’ve changed, the more they’ve remained the same.

Back to the Future

Yitzhak Shamir went to Madrid in late 1991 at the head of an ultra-right wing government, following the previous year’s dismantling of his national unity partnership with Shimon Peres and Labor. Nonetheless, despite Shamir’s impeccable credentials as a champion of Jewish settlements and fierce opponent of any withdrawal in the West Bank, his junior right-wing partners in the coalition brought down his government, paving the way for Yitzhak Rabin’s victory in May 1992.

Although they pledged at the time not to repeat such political folly, 7 years later the ideological right collaborated in bringing down Netanyahu’s first government as well, but at least they had better grounds this time: Netanyahu, after all, had withdrawn from Hebron and had signed the Wye River Agreement, which mandated further withdrawals in the West Bank. Once again, the road was cleared for yet another Labor victory, this time led by Ehud Barak.

Returning to power in 2009, a traumatized Netanyahu carefully maneuvered his way out of any meaningful negotiations in his first term, and he was duly rewarded with an uncharacteristically stable four-year tenure as prime minister.

What remains to be seen now is whether history will repeat itself, and how. Will Naftali Bennet and his national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party be swept away by their own rhetoric and find themselves leaving the coalition, as their ideological predecessors did in 1992?

Will the radically right-wing Knesset members of the Likud make Netanyahu’s life so miserable that he will consider an Ariel-Sharon-like bold stroke that would split the ruling party and create a new Kadima?

Or has Netanyahu placed himself in the corals - Sharon’s favorite metaphor - the one-way slaughterhouse alley for cattle from which there is no escape?

Is Netanyahu finally going on his date with destiny and history and is he determined to be the leader who solves Israel’s most intractable challenge?

The answer, most probably, is: none of the above.

Get a little action in

In any case, by making his short statement after Shabbat had already started, Kerry was giving many of the fiercest opponents of any accord with the Palestinians – including most settlers and many other religious Israelis - 24 hours in which to contemplate their next moves.

Which reminds us of the famous Israeli army maxim usually rendered by disgruntled junior commanders as a veiled threat to unruly soldiers: “For every Shabbat, there is a Motzaei Shabbat [end of Shabbat]”.

So the political fun and games will begin when three stars come out in the dark sky and the Kerry skeptics come out swinging. As Elton John sang long ago, Saturday night’s allright for fighting.

We can’t wait.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps out of a helicopter upon his arrival at Queen Alia International Airport, after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in Amman July 19.Credit: Reuters

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