U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will arrive in Israel again next week for his fourth trip since embarking on a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior advisers was asked a few days ago for his opinion of Kerry’s efforts. The man responded with a smile and a wink. “The guy has a lot of energy,” he said dismissively.
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About one thing, there’s no disagreement between Jerusalem and Ramallah: Kerry has a lot of good intentions and a real sense of mission; he truly wants to make peace in the Middle East. But despite his good intentions, Kerry so far looks like a naive and ham-handed diplomat who has been acting like a bull in the china shop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Or as former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan once put it, he’s a good chap in the worst sense of the term.
Over the last two months, Kerry has managed to upset both sides and make both more suspicious of him by a series of misguided moves and statements. In early April, for instance, at the end of a visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, he said that within a few weeks, he would launch a plan to rescue the Palestinian economy. But an Israeli source said the enthusiastic Kerry forgot one small thing − to coordinate the statement in advance with the Israelis and Palestinians.
A week later, Kerry told the U.S. Senate that the window of opportunity for a two-state solution was liable to close within a year and a half to two years. Senior Israeli officials were upset by this assessment, saying they couldn’t figure out what it was based on. Netanyahu, asked about it later, responded sarcastically that he didn’t share Kerry’s pessimism.
But none of these missteps came close to the fiasco of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s resignation in mid-April. Senior Israeli and Palestinian officials both said that Kerry’s telephone calls to Fayyad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in which he applied heavy pressure to prevent the resignation, did more harm than good.
Still acting like a senator
The incidence of these phone calls leaked out, and Fayyad was painted as an American puppet. The furious prime minister then declared that he was determined to leave. “This was Kerry’s biggest mistake,” a senior Palestinian official said. “If he hadn’t intervened, Fayyad wouldn’t have resigned.”
Despite holding one of the most important jobs in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue Kerry acts like he is still a senator from Massachusetts. Senior American officials said he works alone, with input from almost no one but his adviser on Middle East affairs, Frank Lowenstein, who worked with him when Kerry served on and later chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The majority of the State Department’s senior staffers have simply been left out of the loop.
Since taking office, Kerry has devoted many hours to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, perhaps more than to any other issue. A large portion of this time has been spent in one-on-one meetings and phone calls with Netanyahu and Abbas.
Kerry calls this “personal diplomacy.” He thinks that his main advantage over everyone else when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue is his long years of acquaintance with both leaders and the relations of trust he has built with them. He believes that this will enable him to bring about a breakthrough in the peace proces. But it’s not clear on what Kerry bases this belief. After two months of such conversations, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas has yet displayed any flexibility.
A senior Israeli official who has met with Kerry several times said the secretary of state has a messianic enthusiasm for the Israeli-Palestinian issue and acts like someone who was sent to bring the redemption. A Western official familiar with Kerry’s activity agreed with this assessment.
“Sometimes there’s a feeling that Kerry thinks the only reason his predecessors in the job didn’t bring about a peace agreement is that they weren’t John Kerry,” he said.
In the corridor outside former Secretary of State James Baker’s office in Houston, Texas hang framed cartoons that appeared in various American and foreign newspapers in 1991. The cartoons, which treat Baker’s efforts to launch a Middle East peace process, are dripping with sarcasm and skepticism.
Yet in late October of that year, Baker’s efforts bore fruit: Israel, the Arab states and Palestinian representatives attended an international peace conference in Madrid. Baker may not have won the Nobel Prize, but he proved to all those who jeered at him that via diplomatic means, and more than a little diplomatic pressure on then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu’s mentor and teacher, it’s possible to achieve a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process.
Kerry isn’t willing to make do with an international peace conference. More than 20 years after Madrid, he wants to be the one who achieves a historic agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He tells associates that he’s been preparing for this moment all his life, and that this will be his legacy as secretary of state.
On June 7, Kerry is expected to present the conclusions he has drawn from his three months of talks with Israelis and Palestinians and announce whether he has found a formula for renewing the peace process. Unfortunately for him, at this stage it looks as if neither side has any great enthusiasm for such a step: Both are hunkering down in their entrenched positions. Kerry, who dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize, will be able to obtain it only through sobriety, assertiveness and a willingness to clash with both sides. If he continues with his current naive approach, he is liable to end up the subject of cartoons like those on the wall outside Baker’s office.