Secretary of State John Kerry has done Israelis and Palestinians a huge favor by pushing them to make one last try at negotiating a two-state solution.
After months of effort, Kerry will soon present a draft framework meant to serve as a basis for a final agreement. Critics such as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have called Kerry’s project "obsessive and messianic." Although those remarks were quickly refuted by Prime Minisiter Benjamin Netanyahu, Ya’alon was correct: You really do have to be mad to try to close the current gap between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet Kerry has managed, by his obsession, to force both sides to face the consequences if his efforts end in failure. The importance of Kerry’s crusade was laid out to me by Amram Mitzna, a member of parliament from the centrist Hatnuah Party, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, represents Israel at the talks.
"Never before has a secretary of state been so involved or such a believer," said Mitzna, who was visiting Philadelphia on a tour arranged by the liberal Jewish group J Street. "This is the last opportunity for the United States to be as involved as it is now.
"If these talks fail, I don’t see when we will be able to get an agreement, because we need an outside force to push us ahead. The price to Israel of failure in these current negotiations will be very high."
Mitzna has had long experience with failed peace efforts. A retired general who became mayor of the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, he later led the Labor Party when it lost badly to Ariel Sharon in the 2003 elections. Israeli voters were skeptical about the prospects for peace then, and are even more so now.
But Mitzna believes there are pressing reasons that Israel can’t afford to keep control of the West Bank and, indirectly, of Gaza. He thinks the relative quiet in those areas won’t last.
"We are about to face a third Palestinian intifada," he says. The first uprising was fought with stones, and the second with guns and suicide bombers. But this time, says Mitzna, the tactics will be different, "using media and world opinion against Israel. The atmosphere is more ready than ever to isolate Israel."
Kerry recently raised this danger and was falsely accused by some Israeli hawks of promoting a boycott. But, like Mitzna, he was only describing the real prospect if Israel continues to occupy — and settle — the West Bank, with no further talks on two states and no political rights for Palestinians. To the world, this will look like South African apartheid redux.
I’d add something Mitzna didn’t mention:
The Palestinian Authority on the West Bank is financed largely by foreign aid, much of it from European sources. If the occupation continues indefinitely, that aid will dry up, and Israel will become legally responsible for keeping the West Bank afloat.
A framework accord, says Mitzna, would keep such prospects at bay, and keep negotiations going. He sees the current instability in the Arab world as a plus for a deal, because no Arab army is likely to threaten Israel for the next 15 years. He also thinks a new Palestinian government, along with neighboring Jordan, would, for reasons of self-interest, keep any terrorist threat — and the Jordan border — under control.
Mitzna doesn’t believe Israel needs formal recognition as a "Jewish" state, although he would like it. More important, he says, is a deal that formally declares the conflict to be over, and specifies that Palestinian refugees must return to the new state of Palestine. If 1948 Palestinians and their descendants flooded Israel, there really would be no more Jewish state.
However, the leaked version of Kerry’s framework doesn’t look likely to meet either side’s red line. Both might accept a demilitarized Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, with territorial swaps so Israel can keep large West Bank settlements.
But Palestinians won’t agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a provision reportedly included in the framework; the Palestinians say this marginalizes the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. Nor will they give up on a division of the city of Jerusalem. And they still insist on the absolute right of refugees to return to Israel, which is definitely not included.
The best the secretary of state is likely to achieve is a "Kerry Plan" with loopholes, which each side can endorse with "reservations." This would provide a cover to keep talks going for six more months, but isn’t likely to lead to a final agreement. Still, as Mitzna made clear, the prospect of failed talks is hugely risky to both sides (the Palestinian option of taking their case to the United Nations will not gain them statehood).
In the end, Israelis and Palestinians need the "obsessive" Kerry so badly they may agree to keep trying.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
— Philadelphia Inquirer