Obsolete Paradigms Doomed Kerry's Mission

A holistic approach must supplant personal diplomacy and stale attitudes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says goodbye as he leaves Tel Aviv. April 1, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says goodbye as he leaves Tel Aviv. April 1, 2014. AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry deserves praise for his efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. But the results on the ground proved that he made serious errors. The principle of “anti-fragility,” which involves efforts to transform failures into opportunities, demands that lessons be drawn as to how to advance Arab-Israeli peace in the future.

The first error was putting too much trust in personal diplomacy. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been stuck for a long time. Therefore, it should have been clear that there was no hope that a repetition of the “more of the same” attempts of personal diplomacy – however energetic – could drag the negotiations out of the morass.

The problem is not one of too much self-confidence that “I will succeed where others failed,” but what is today a widely accepted, erroneous practice of expecting that the personal involvement of senior politicians can transform situations of stalemate. When substantive interests and fundamental values are at stake, discourse as well as “moderate pressure” achieve nothing.

Much more serious an error is clinging to “doctrines” which have been proven wrong. The dominant paradigm regards relations between Israel and the Palestinians as standing largely on their own, and assumes that they can mainly be dealt with in relative isolation from the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole. This view has been refuted by the constant failures of Israeli-Palestinian talks, as well as the disappointments stemming from the Oslo Accords and the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

In-depth examination shows clearly that the accepted doctrine is fundamentally misleading and no less dangerous than the doctrines which resulted in Israel’s failures in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The accepted paradigm ignores that fact that the Palestinians cannot provide Israel with assets that would justify the requisite Israeli withdrawals; moreover, it ignores the whole Gaza issue which in reality is an integral part of the entire problem.

Clearly it is impossible to arrive at any meaningful agreement without an Israeli withdrawal close to the 1968 borders and a special arrangement as regards Jerusalem. But a realpolitik-based assessment leads to the conclusion that the Palestinians have nothing to offer that would justify such radical Israeli concessions. Furthermore, contradictory historical narratives, different notions of “justice,” and conflicting values cannot provide a basis for agreements in the absence of realpolitik quid pro quos.

It is necessary to take into account, among other things, the fact that the Palestinians do not constitute a strategic danger to Israel; that a peace agreement with them by itself is unsustainable within an all-encompassing regional conflict; and that the notion that an Israeli agreement with the Palestinians will lead to a broad Middle East peace settlement does not hold water.

For instance, let us assume that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the state of the Jewish people.” Such a declaration has the historic weight of a feather in comparison to the depth of the Arab Islamic-Israeli Jewish conflict. On the other hand, Israeli embassies in Riyadh and Tehran could achieve the critical mass necessary for ending the conflict as a whole, in stages. And, however unrealistic such an image is in terms of the narrow-mindedness that characterizes the status quo – such embassies are within the realm of the possible in a broad Middle East agreement.

Therefore, the United States should have engaged in creative thinking vis-a-vis the conflict, uninhibited by accepted views, before the secretary of state wasted his time and diminished the credibility of his country by engaging in doomed shuttle diplomacy. And along with the secretary, a special representative with a creative, “open mind” should have been appointed, who is not captive to obsolete paradigms because of years of acting on their basis. (This applies also to the Israelis handling the negotiations).

Coping with the strong momentum of the conflict demands that a new paradigm – such as proceeding toward a comprehensive Middle East agreement, of which establishment of a Palestinian state in one component.

Also essential is exercise of significant power. The president of the United States had to decide if he personally, with the backing of his powerful country, should be committed to advancing a phased, comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, by presenting a new and grand design, together with many positive and negative incentives, or give priority to other issues, such as the geostrategic situation of Asia. Leaving the burden of the Palestinian issue mainly to a secretary of states assures failure in advance.

The special relations that exist with the United States are essential for the security of Israel. Therefore, we should be very worried by the inadequacies of grand American strategic thinking, as expressed, among other things, by John Kerry's mission.

Talk in Israel of “finding a substitute” for the United States because of apprehensions about its declining influence and erosion of its support are no more than dangerous delusions. The only way to compensate for the American errors is to launch a credible Israeli peace initiative for the entire region, in coordination with the United States, based on outstanding statecraft and creativity. But, as yet, there are no signs of this.

The dire situation of the peace process has all the more ominous significance in light of the comprehensive processes of change the world is undergoing at present. These processes contain serious dangers – but golden opportunities as well – also for Israel and the Jewish people. But that demands a separate discussion.

The latest book by the author, Avant-Garde Politician: Leaders for a New Epoch, was published in April 2014.