Here is my list of top Middle East foreign policy and security priorities for U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry: Halting the Iranian dash to obtain a nuclear weapon, deposing Assad and preventing Syria from becoming al-Qaida-stan, isolating Hezbollah, stabilizing Egypt, and protecting the monarch in Jordan. And, oh yes, managing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The worst thing that Obama and Kerry could do would be to launch a full-throttle, obsessive, "top priority" focus on a grand Palestinian-Israeli peace deal. In current diplomatic parlance, this means massive international pressure on Israel to make wildly dangerous and unwise concessions to a feckless and radicalized Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, without ending the rule of Iran and Hamas in Gaza, and without obtaining true end-of-conflict concessions from the Palestinians.
It is an approach that is bound to fail — which means that it will blow up in our faces and bring upon us decades of misery.
Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what Obama and Kerry are planning.
I am not reassured by Kerry's remarks this week that Obama is coming to the Middle East next month to "listen," not to dictate a peace plan; nor by the assessments of Washington experts like Aaron David Miller and Martin Indyk that Obama has "learned the lessons" of his first-term failures in Arab-Israel peacemaking.
I nevertheless sense that Obama and Kerry are on a mission to "save" the world and us by attempting to impose a comprehensive two-state "solution." I intuit that they remain ideologically passionate to drive a grand Palestinian-Israeli bargain, against our will and better judgment, and against all odds.
After meeting Kerry this week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague repeated the hackneyed mantra that "there is no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013 than restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians." I wonder where he got such nonsense from.
Let's face it: The Palestinians have long ago taken a decision to reject the two-state solution as Israelis and most American policymakers envision it.
The Palestinian state that Israelis might be able to support in Judea, Samaria and Gaza cannot threaten Israel's security — meaning that it must be truly demilitarized, cannot form hostile foreign alliances, will dismantle the Hamas army and hand over its weaponry, agree to Israeli monitors on all its external borders, and accept a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.
The Palestinian state that Israelis might be able to support in Judea, Samaria and Gaza must be also a reasonable neighbor and willing to compromise — meaning that it will not contain any large Israeli settlement blocs, cannot control and destroy Jerusalem, and must share its airspace, natural resources, and historical and religious sites with Israel.
The Palestinian state that Israelis can envision, if at all, in Judea, Samaria and Gaza has to agree to a permanent end to the conflict and all claims on Israel — meaning that it renounces the right of return, inculcates reconciliation and not anti-Semitism on its airwaves and in its schools, and recognizes Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
But the Palestinians view this as a "sovereign cage." They are simply not interested in such a solution. I have yet to meet or hear from a Palestinian leader who is prepared to settle with Israel along these lines, even if Israel hands over 100 percent of the West Bank.
As the prominent Palestinian advisor Professor Ahmad Khalidi has said, "The concept of Palestinian statehood is nothing but a punitive construct devised by our worst enemies — the United States and Israel — to constrain Palestinian aspirations and territorial ambitions." Or as Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh (who is currently in Washington to prepare Obama's Ramallah visit) told a Diaspora Jewish group (in my presence) two weeks ago, "We Palestinians will not, I repeat NOT with capital letters, ever recognize Israel as a Jewish state, because this is meant by Israel to block the Palestinian right of return to Jaffa, Haifa and Ein Karem."
Given this reality, and given the Arab earthquakes that are destabilizing Israel's borders, it is folly to shoot for unattainable "historic" breakthroughs in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. Obama and Kerry should consider more sober and realistic diplomatic options, such as those recently outlined by former Israel Foreign Ministry Director-General Professor Shlomo Avineri, and former Israeli negotiator Tal Becker (who worked with Tzipi Livni).
Avineri and Becker call for renewed multilateral efforts to the proven combination of state-building and security cooperation as the best way forward for all parties.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Avineri calls for "a fresh look at what is feasible, with an eye toward the lessons from similar conflicts such as those in Cyprus, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Kashmir. Like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, these disputes are multifaceted: They are not only about territory but also about sovereignty, legitimacy, and national self-determination; they have been exacerbated by religious differences; and they entail occupation, resistance to that occupation, and terrorism. None of these conflicts has been fully settled because the contending parties were not willing to give up their basic claims, but they have been gradually tempered. In each case, a complex set of partial agreements, conflict-management measures, unilateral decisions, and confidence-building strategies has generally kept bloodshed at bay. …
"In none of these cases was the United States able to move the parties toward a final-status agreement against their will, but it could help coax them to accept halfway measures that do not entail giving up fundamental claims. Such proactive conflict management may be the only realistic prospect for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. And it could be acceptable to a new Netanyahu government that will, in all probability, include centrist parties.
"Such an approach would mean moving ahead slowly, step by step, which would make it easier for both sides to sell such piecemeal progress to their constituencies, since they would not have to cross any of their fundamental and ideological redlines. Such a strategy would be based on what has already been achieved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the much-overlooked fact that security cooperation between the two sides has improved in the last few years, despite the lack of progress on negotiations.
Becker, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warns against "bad policy options." He says that a PA move towards reconciliation with Hamas, or more one-sided UN resolutions, or violent Palestinian protests, or unilateral Israeli withdrawals, or rushed attempts to broker a final status deal — are "untenable" and bound to fail badly. Instead, Becker argues for "small, tangible steps in Palestinian state-building that can be achieved over the pursuit of laudable but presently unattainable outcomes."
All this means dialing down Palestinian expectations, not ratcheting up pressure on Israel. It requires the international community to roll back Palestinian maximalism, not chop away at Israeli conservatism. It entails a slow search for alternatives to the defunct "two-state-now" approach, not a mad sprint towards grandiose signing ceremonies on the White House lawn.
Bowing to realism and avoiding costly mistakes may not excite Obama, and it won't win Kerry a Nobel prize. But modest diplomacy is the only realistic way to push Israeli-Palestinian relations away from the dangers of confrontation and toward some modicum of reconciliation. Everything else has already failed.