Kerry Failure Proves That Cuddling Netanyahu Doesn’t Bring Peace Any Closer

In his second term, Obama has tried the 'no daylight' with Israel strategy that American Jewish leaders advised. It hasn’t worked.

Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

The failure of John Kerry’s peace mission may be depressing. But it’s clarifying too. Kerry’s failure represents a “natural experiment”: A situation in which real world events allow observers to test a theory they’ve long debated. Let me explain.

A few months after taking office, President Obama hosted American Jewish leaders in the Roosevelt Room. There, Executive Vice-Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein instructed him in the American Jewish establishment’s view of peacemaking. “If you want Israel to take risks,” Hoenlein explained, “then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them.” In other words, the best way to get Netanyahu to support a viable Palestinian state is to never disagree with anything he does, at least not in public.

Obama disagreed. “When there is no daylight,” he responded. “Israel just sits on the sidelines.” As the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman said later, “We believed from that point that we were in for problems.”

He was right. In Obama’s first year as president, he pushed Netanyahu to freeze settlement growth, thus prompting a public confrontation. In his third year, he pushed Netanyahu to endorse the 1967 lines plus land swaps as the basis for peace talks, thus prompting another public confrontation. All the while, mainstream American Jewish leaders muttered that Obama had it all wrong. If only he had followed the “no daylight” rule, Netanyahu would have felt secure enough to make dramatic gestures for peace.

That’s what makes the Kerry mission so instructive. It represents a “natural experiment” testing the Hoenlein thesis. In Obama’s second term, unlike his first, his administration has been all reassurance and no confrontation. Yet Netanyahu has barely budged at all.

Obama began his second term by doing the very thing pro-Israel hawks had lambasted him for not doing in his first: visiting Israel. In fact, he not only visited, he so fervently endorsed the Zionist narrative that even hardened critics swooned. “The president captured the hearts of the Israeli people,” declared Major General Amos Yadlin, former head of the Israeli Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate. 

“After the stirring Zionist rhetoric uttered by the president during his stay in the Jewish state,” wrote Commentary Magazine’s fiercely anti-Obama blogger, Jonathan Tobin, “it’s simply no longer possible for his opponents to brand him as a foe of Israel or as someone who is unsympathetic to its plight.” Hoenlein could not have scripted it better himself.

Then John Kerry embarked on a peace mission carefully designed to be more palatable to the Netanyahu government than Obama’s earlier efforts. This time, Team Obama did not ask Israel to publicly commit to a settlement freeze, as it had in 2009. Nor did the US demand that Netanyahu publicly accept the 1967 parameters, as it had done in 2011. In his first term, Obama had appointed as his envoy to the peace process George Mitchell, a man neither well known nor widely trusted in Israel. This time, he and Kerry selected Martin Indyk, who had spent much of his career at AIPAC and its spinoff think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. Indyk was later joined by the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky, a former reporter and editor at Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. It would have been hard to design a team more attuned to Israeli concerns.

If that wasn’t enough, Kerry and Indyk reportedly floated proposals that on issue after issue were more favorable to Israel than those offered by Bill Clinton in his famed December 2000 parameters. According to press reports, Israel would get to keep its troops in the Jordan valley for longer than Clinton had envisioned; the Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem would be confined to fewer neighborhoods; there would be not even a token Palestinian refugee return; the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state. It’s impossible to know what exactly transpired behind closed doors, but Obama’s Israel trip, plus the composition of the Kerry-Indyk team and their reported shift toward Israeli positions suggests a genuine effort to give the Hoenlein strategy a try.

And, yet, as an unnamed American official (widely assumed to be Indyk) told Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, Netanyahu “wouldn’t move more than an inch.” Mahmoud Abbas, according to the official, accepted that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, that eighty percent of settlers would be annexed to Israel, that Israel could keep its troops in the Jordan Valley for five years (as opposed to the three years envisioned in the Clinton parameters), that Israel could retain the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and that Israel “won’t be flooded with refugees.” Netanyahu, by contrast, “demanded complete control over the territories. This told the Palestinians that nothing was going to change on the security front. Israel was not willing to agree to time frames - its control of the West Bank would continue forever.”

A critic might respond that no matter what Obama and Kerry did on the Palestinian front, they never sufficiently reassured Netanyahu on Iran. By this logic, had the U.S. abandoned diplomacy with Tehran in favor of a military strike, Netanyahu would have made far greater concessions to Abbas. It’s impossible to know. Especially since an American-Iranian war could have prompted proxy wars between Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas, which might have destroyed the peace process anyway.

But the key point is this. The Hoenlein thesis may have some validity when it comes to an Israeli prime minister like Ehud Olmert who becomes genuinely passionate about creating a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. But in Netanyahu’s case, Hoenlein’s mantra stands reality on its head. Throughout his career, it is only American pressure that has made Netanyahu move, even minimally, toward a Palestinian state. Without pressure from Bill Clinton, there is no way Netanyahu—who had repeatedly compared the Oslo process to the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland--would have turned over much of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority or signed the Wye River Memorandum. Without pressure from Barack Obama, Netanyahu would not have endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state at all, something he had publicly opposed while running for prime minister in 2009.

In fact, Netanyahu himself doesn’t buy the Hoenlein thesis. In private, he has proudly explained his refusal to support a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines as the result of American pressure not being strong enough. “America is something that can easily be moved,” he told settlers in Ofra in 2001. “I was not afraid to clash with Clinton.”

He hasn’t been afraid to clash with Barack Obama either. The fear, unfortunately, runs mostly the other way.