Is America Really an Honest Broker in the Peace Process?

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The idea that America’s role in the Middle East “peace process” should be as an “honest broker” is one I’ve opposed for decades. To me the phrase connotes someone who is between two adversaries. It’s always made more sense that America stand not between Israel and her enemies but behind Israel. Had that position not been abandoned, an agreement, if one can be had at all, would have been had by now.

For a glimpse of the problem, feature the astonishing exchange between Secretary of State Kerry’s spokesman at Foggy Bottom, Jen Psaki, and a reporter at the regular press briefing last Friday. The net of it is that, in advance of President Obama’s meeting with President Abbas, the State Department is backing away from the idea that Israel must be recognized as a Jewish state.

Psaki was asked about a report of the Palestinian news agency WAFA, which quoted Abbas as telling a young group from Fatah that there was, as the questioner paraphrased it, “no way he’s ever going to accept a Jewish state.” The reporter then tried repeatedly to get Psaki to answer the question of whether this would be a problem for the administration. To disclose that it wouldn’t, Kerry’s spokesman used the technique of refusing to answer the question.

First she rattled on about the historic role in the peace process played by Jordan. Her questioner met that gambit with laughter. Then she claimed that the negotiations were at a “pivotal point.” Then she claimed Kerry expected there would be “concerning comments made by both sides.” Then she said that this has been observed “over the past couple of weeks.” Then she repeated that it was “not unexpected.” Then she tried to palm off the idea that the Palestinian side is as committed to the process as Israel.

This didn’t sit well with the reporter. “I don’t understand what you have done,” he asked. Psaki floundered on until this: “If you look at the issue of a Jewish state and whether Israel will be called a Jewish state, that’s been our position, as you know, for a long time, but that doesn’t reflect what the parties will agree to, which I know you know.” In other words, at this stage of things, with Prime Netanyahu and Abbas in Washington within two weeks of one another, it’s still a game of jump ball.

Though, just to be thorough about it, the reporter, after a good bit more palaver, made one more attempt. “Okay,” he said, “And on the issue of the Jewish state — “

PSAKI: “Mm-hmm.”

QUESTION: “I don’t know if you looked at, let’s say, the Haaretz editorial today. And they lay out how the Palestinians have already recognized Israel time and time again — Arafat did; Abbas did; the PNC, which is the Palestine National Council, did and so on — that in fact have done everything in terms of recognizing the state, as it has been recognized by every other state. So do you – will you insist in this framework agreement that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state?”

PSAKI: “Well, I think I just addressed this, but our position — ”

QUESTION: “But — ”

PSAKI: “— let me finish – our position, as you know, has been for quite some time — ”

QUESTION: “Right.”

MS. PSAKI: “ — that Israel is the Jewish – that Israel is a Jewish state. That doesn’t reflect, of course, what the parties are going to agree to.”

As it turns out, there was yet another round of back and forth, in which Kerry’s spokesman refused to answer, insisting that we are talking about “what’s being compromised as part of a discussion on a framework for negotiations.” More to and fro, until at one point the question was put this way: “Surely if they can’t agree on that one issue, what’s the point of — ?” Psaki wouldn’t answer that question either.

What is so strike about all this is the contrast between what the State Department is saying and what President Obama is saying. Here is the President, answering a question from Jeffrey Goldberg, only days before Psaki’s briefing: “I’ve said directly to Prime Minister Netanyahu he has an opportunity to solidify, to lock in, a democratic, Jewish state of Israel that is at peace with its neighbors.” This is why what happened at the State Department Friday raises the question of just what kind of brokering is going on.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Kerrt's last visit.Credit: Reuters