U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Israel Thursday for the 10th time in less than a year. Shortly afterward, he made clear what has become more evident over the past month – that, within a few weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have to make decisions that will determine whether the peace process is on the verge of a historic breakthrough or on the road to failure and a dangerous blowup.
The “framework agreement” the secretary of state talks about is, in fact, the sketch of the outlines of the future peace agreement. It defines the principles by which the most sensitive issues will be resolved – 1967 borders, security arrangements in the Jordan Valley, refugees and the division of Jerusalem.
Even if Netanyahu doesn’t have to sign the American document, even if he presents objections and even if nothing changes on the ground on the day after, Israeli willingness to enter intensive talks based on that “framework agreement” will mean setting out on a road from which there is no way back.
With enormous effort and almost unprecedented determination, Kerry has managed to bring Netanyahu and Abbas – two leaders who do not believe a word the other says – into a significant diplomatic process. These two men, who want only to blame the other side for failure, never thought they would reach this point.
Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, using a term from the world of ranching, would say that Kerry has Abbas and Netanyahu corralled on the narrow path by which cows are led to the slaughter. From the moment they pass through the metal pillars, they can only move forward. Even if they try to dig in to the ground, their fate is sealed.
Kerry is not a slaughterer. He protected Netanyahu and Abbas during this process through personal, private conversations, nighttime phone calls and a great deal of praise and support. He doesn’t leave them alone for a minute. He keeps on at them. Wherever they look, there he is. If they forget his existence, he’ll remind them.
Kerry’s strategy is not to confront Netanyahu and Abbas, but rather to kill them with kindness. They both break out in a rash and come down with a migraine when they think about the content of Kerry’s “framework agreement,” and about the decisions they will have to make. But they also understand that the cost of saying no to Kerry might be much greater than saying yes.
Kerry chose to open the short statement at the start of his meeting with Netanyahu by referring precisely to one of Netanyahu’s greatest rivals – Ariel Sharon: “My thoughts are with the Sharon family. We remember his contributions, the sacrifices he made to ensure the survival and the well-being of Israel.”
Kerry’s empathy highlighted the fact that Netanyahu has chosen to pointedly ignore the deterioration in Sharon’s condition. There is nothing Netanyahu hates more than to hear comparisons between him and Sharon. They are almost never complimentary to Netanyahu.
But there is one comparison he cannot escape. He has reached the moment where Sharon was on the eve of a decision on disengagement from Gaza. International pressure is increasing, the cost of the occupation is becoming intolerable for Israel’s international standing, and foment in Likud is threatening to turn into a rebellion. The answer the PM gives in a few weeks will determine whether he is moving toward a historic move, like Sharon, or to evasive maneuvers and playing for time, à la Netanyahu.