Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog Pressure Points here.
There must be something in the water at the State Department that leads successive secretaries of state to decide, seemingly on their first day there, that now is the time for a big new push at a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Here we go again. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intends to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of his diplomatic activities and to strive to achieve a breakthrough agreement between the two sides during President Obama’s second term in office, according to the assessment of well-placed sources in Washington and New York."
Why? The article continues: "Nonetheless, the overall impression left by the discussions conducted in recent weeks by Kerry and his advisers with European, Israeli and Arab officials, as well as American Jewish leaders, is that the former Massachusetts senator is 'determined to the point of obsession,' as one skeptical interlocutor put it, to change the tone and direction of relations between Israel and the Palestinians during his term as secretary of state. 'He sees it as the holy mission of his life,' the source said. Kerry is convinced that his years of experience with the region and his deep personal relationships with many of its main protagonists, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, place him in a unique position to succeed where his predecessors have failed and to bring about not only a resumption of talks but a long-term agreement as well."
Lest it be thought that this is the take solely of one Israeli newspaper, here is the Los Angeles Times' experienced correspondent Paul Richter: "As Kerry heads off Sunday on his debut trip as secretary of state to nine nations in Europe and the Middle East, his blunt exchange with Assad offers insight on his determination to use whatever it takes — even insults — to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, his personal passion. Kerry has made it clear he wants to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a long and sporadic process whose latest collapse occurred during Obama’s first term. He is well aware that failed attempts tarnished the reputations of elder statesmen and presidents for decades, including Obama. He is not deterred."
Two things strike me about these reports. First, our new secretary of state does not appear to be operating from any new assessment of the situation received from State Department or other U.S. experts, nor from Israelis or Palestinians. He is entering the office certain of what can be achieved and certain he is the man to achieve it. This is not the best way to make policy.
Second, he seems unaware of, or anyway undeterred by, the risks and downsides. Raising hopes that are later dashed, opening negotiations that sadly go nowhere, holding ceremonial openings that never lead to tangible achievements — all of these undermine faith on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides that peace is achievable. American failures of any sort have the same effect, on those parties and others in the region. Moreover, the insistent (obsessive?) focus on breakthroughs and huge achievements leads too often to ignoring more practical, shorter-range, and achievable agreements that are sometimes derided as "small ball." Better small ball than the swing for the fences that, time after time, ends the inning in a strikeout.
From Pressure Points by Elliott Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.