American cartoonist Rube Goldberg became famous in the 1930s for his drawings of complex machines doing simple tasks — like moving a pencil across a table — in long, convoluted and clumsy processes. Goldberg won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and Merriam Webster dictionary listed his name as a definition for doing something simple in a complicated way.
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John Kerry’s recent attempts to cobble together a deal to prevent the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could have been inspired by a Rube Goldberg cartoon. It’s as if the U.S. secretary of state has invented a Rube Goldberg peace-processing machine.
After failing, in the course of three months, to bring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make fundamental decisions on the issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem, Kerry tried to engineer a complex roundabout deal. Under this deal, the Palestinians will agree to extend the negotiations and not go to the United Nations, Israel will release hundreds of prisoners and freeze construction in the settlements and the United States will free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
All these acrobatics were intended to buy more time for sterile talks that are going nowhere. But as with Rube Goldberg’s wondrous machines, if one part doesn’t work, the whole process falls apart.
There’s still a slim chance the move to extend the Israeli-Palestinian talks — which has already been dubbed, courtesy of the American administration, the Pollard deal — will bear fruit. But even if that happens, it won’t change the grim reality.
Neither the Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president are prepared to carry out the historic compromises that might lead to a breakthrough. The two figures are mirror images of each other. They each want chiefly to preserve the status quo and shift the responsibility for the talks’ failure to the other.
At a gloomy news conference in Brussels on Tuesday evening, after canceling his trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kerry said the U.S. cannot want a peace agreement more than the Israelis and Palestinians. This is exactly what has happened over the past year.
Kerry has not yet been pushed as far as his predecessor, James Baker, who, before the Madrid Conference, read the White House telephone number to the world in front of the cameras and told then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
But if the U.S. secretary of state doesn’t want to become a dictionary entry, he must take advantage of the crisis in the peace talks to turn things around, and fast.
Kerry must go home. He must tell American envoy Martin Indyk and his team to pack their bags and take the first flight out of Ben-Gurion International Airport to the United States. He must ask the U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv Dan Shapiro and consul general in Jerusalem Michael Retney to give the same answer to the calls from the prime minister’s office and the Muqata — “You didn’t want us, now get along by yourselves.”
Only American disengagement from the peace process could provide the shock treatment the Israelis and Palestinians need. Without Kerry and Indyk, Netanyahu and Abbas will suddenly discover that the alternative is to wallow together in the mud at best, or in blood at worst.
From the moment the Americans leave, it won’t take long before both sides scream "gevalt" and beg Kerry to return. If the Americans wanted to get involved in the peace process again after such a crisis, they could do so on their own terms. They could demand that the leaders make decisions, not just continue the process or negotiations. They could put a draft framework agreement on the table and tell Netanyahu and Abbas: Sign here, please.