Why now? You have to ask, with the entire Arab world falling apart, and President Obama caught up in urgent domestic matters, why has Secretary of State John Kerry staked his reputation on another effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
And, given the number of failed peace efforts over the past four decades, why on earth would Kerry set a goal of reaching an overall peace deal in nine months — which is, to put it mildly, impossible? Especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Cynics will argue that, with U.S. influence fading in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere in the region, this issue may be the only one where Washington still has leverage. That fails to explain the intensity with which Kerry has pursued an issue that can only bring him grief.
A short-term explanation for his crusade, put forward by some administration officials, is that a failure to renew talks would guarantee that the Palestinians would renew pressure for recognition at the United Nations and other international organizations.
Israel might respond by cutting off funds from the Palestinian Authority. This, in turn, would undercut important security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian officials on the West Bank. This downward spiral could increase the international isolation of Israel that has already been provoked by Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
The European Union has just banned exports from Israel that were produced by West Bank settlers, and a U.N. battle could lead the Europeans to make further cuts in investment.
This fear of greater Israeli isolation could explain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to enter talks, which could undercut pressures from Europe. Yet it’s hard to believe that Kerry would take such a huge personal risk to avoid a U.N. confrontation over Palestine.
If you look at Kerry’s statements, he appears to be thinking much more of the long-term. He has repeatedly said he believes the window for a two-state solution is about to shut, with tragic consequences for Israel and a negative impact on U.S. security interests as well.
“We’re running out of time,” Kerry told the American Jewish Committee in June. “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”
Kerry is correct. Here’s why: First, the number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank is constantly expanding, with a total of about 360,000 living there and an additional 300,000 in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of their state. In the next few years, further settlement expansion, and a stronger settler lobby, will make it politically impossible to disentangle the West Bank from Israel without a civil war.
Second, as titular head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas may be the last Palestinian leader with the legitimacy to sign a peace accord with Israel. But he is tired and aging, and losing credibility in the absence of negotiations (and has already lost control of Gaza to Hamas). A year or two from now, he is unlikely to still be in charge.
Third, the Arab leaders whose strong backing Abbas would need to sign an accord, are old, ailing, threatened, or finished in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Big Three countries whose imprimatur Abbas requires are mired in uncertainty. Egypt is in chaos and its leadership uncertain.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who initiated the Arab Peace Initiative that promised pan-Arab recognition of Israel in the wake of two states, is old and ailing — as is his designated successor. King Abdullah of Jordan is threatened by an influx of Syrian refugees and popular dissatisfaction with regime corruption. If the two Abdullahs pass from the scene, the Palestinian state would be orphaned at birth.
So Kerry is correct that the window for any peace deal is shutting. Yet the same factors that would rule out a deal two years hence are blocking one now. Abbas is already too weak, and the Arab world too fragmented to back him.
Even were Netanyahu inclined to confront the settlers and return most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which he has shown no interest in doing), the Arab world’s convulsions would make him hesitate.
Kerry knows the status quo is unsustainable. He knows the failure to create two states means Israelis and Palestinians will soon be living in one state where Jews are outnumbered by Arabs.
Down this road lies an apartheid-style Israel facing international isolation. The secretary’s passion stems from his determination to find a better solution. But the window may already have closed.
• Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.