Peace in the Middle East? John Kerry's impossible dream

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been shuttling relentlessly through the Middle East, trying to stitch together an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that neither side nor Barack Obama seem much interested in. So what's the point? Neil Macdonald asks.

U.S. secretary of state wants an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan set by April. But does anyone else?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is escorted in to see Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at his winter camp in Rawdat al-Khuraim on Jan. 5. Kerry arrived to brief the king on the latest in the peace talks among other Middle East issues. (Brendan Smialowski / Reuters)

For a fellow who failed in the greatest political quest of his career, John Kerry radiates an inexplicably supreme self-confidence about his latest mission.

By the end of April, he wants to secure the basis for a final, durable peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The objective is at least as daunting as his 2004 run for the presidency, probably more so.

And judging from the time he's spending on the issue, he considers it the most urgent foreign policy issue on the U.S. agenda.

This month, he made his tenth trip to the region since last summer, when he declared his all-out pursuit of a final deal.

The fact that neither side — or, for that matter, President Barack Obama — is evincing any real enthusiasm for the secretary of state's campaign doesn't seem to matter.

Kerry seems convinced he can — at a stroke — accomplish something that would guarantee him his shining place in history after all.

So he shuttles between Jerusalem and Ramallah, aping the relentless tactics of Bill Clinton, who, as president in 1998, sequestered Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland, doggedly shuttling between the two camps until an "interim agreement" was obtained.

Like all other such agreements, it disintegrated. So this time, Kerry wants more.

America's dismal track record

"It's not mission impossible," he declared last week. "I want to reiterate: we are not working on an interim deal."

This time, he said, the United States wants the real thing — a final peace.

It's an admirable enough goal. But it leaves unanswered a question that's been around since my time in the Middle East, when the prospect of a deal was taken much more seriously.

That is: if it is in the interest of both sides to make peace, and they both want to, why is American shuttling and arm-twisting and jawboning so necessary?

History, in fact, would suggest Washington's involvement is actually unnecessary, and may even be unhelpful.

As columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Aharanot, one of Israel's most widely read newspapers, there are three deals between Israel and its adversaries that have stood the test of time: "The peace treaty with Egypt; the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO; and the peace treaty with Jordan.

"The talks that led to the signing of these agreements were conducted behind the back of the American administrations… Each time America initiated a move, it failed."

'Incitement index'

Furthermore, there is ample evidence that neither side truly wants a deal now, at least not on the terms Kerry is proposing. (The details are not public, but his plan reportedly involves Israeli withdrawal from most of the occupied territories for starters.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet the press in Jerusalem on Jan. 2. After that, it was off to Ramallah on the West Bank, then Saudi Arabia and back to Tel Aviv before returning to Washington on this latest leg of his peace trek. (Brendan Smialowski/ Reuters )

Israel, which has nearly all the power, implacably continues its expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and there is serious support in Netanyahu's cabinet for outright annexation of the Jordan Valley.

Sharing Jerusalem as a capital, which was seriously discussed during my posting in the late 1990s, is now out of the question.

Netanyahu also seems to be saying there can be no deal unless Palestinians stop saying nasty things about Israelis.

Israel, which has long complained about what Palestinian children are taught, has created an "incitement index," along with a slide presentation on the Palestinian media that it has shown Kerry's officials.

The Palestinians, the Netanyahu government says, continue to negate Israel's existence. Palestinians, of course, have similar claims about Israel.

Inculcation of hatred is a longstanding issue, and one that has been highly propagandized. But there’s not been much scientific evaluation.

However, one serious effort last year, funded by the U.S. and carried out by Israeli and Palestinian academics under the supervision of Yale University, reached a surprising conclusion. 

It found that while both sides teach their schoolchildren selective versions of history, and both sides portray themselves as heroic victims, examples of demonization of the other group in school texts are exceedingly rare.

As for Israel's complaint that the Palestinians ignore Israel's existence, the study also found that maps in both Palestinian and Israeli schools tend to blank out the other side entirely.

The study didn't examine media, or social media, but anyone who has lived there knows there are ugly voices on both sides. Palestinian voices, being the ones on the occupied side, tend to be more bitter.

Well, we tried

Whatever the Israeli government's objections, Netanyahu has also promised that no deal, if one is ever reached, will be implemented unless approved in a national referendum, which, given the current political atmosphere, probably means failure.

The Palestinian leadership isn't likely to sign Kerry's deal, either.

It is divided against itself, with the Islamists of Hamas ruling in Gaza, and a politically weakened "president," Mahmoud Abbas, in charge of what little Palestinian governance exists on the West Bank.

Abbas's officials, having concluded Israel's goal is to render any Palestinian state a practical impossibility, have obviously decided confrontation is their best hope.

They persuaded the UN General Assembly last year to recognize Palestine as a "non-member observer state," and, using that new status, are reportedly preparing to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Understandably enough, they see the U.S as neither a "super-partner," to use Bill Clinton's term, or even an honest broker, given America's decades of unwavering support for Israel and the reluctance of any president since George H.W. Bush to seriously confront Israel over its settlement policies.

That list includes Obama, which is what makes Kerry's enthusiastic insistence on the April 30 deadline so hard to take seriously.

After he was first elected, Obama did try to pressure Netanyahu into a settlement freeze, and suggested negotiations based on the "1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps" — more or less the same position taken by previous presidents, including George W. Bush.

Netanyahu, however, shoved back hard (one of his aides called the proposed borders "Auschwitz borders"). Congress largely sided with Netanyahu, and Israel's supporters here in the U.S. accused Obama of abandoning America's friend and ally.

Since then, Obama has remained largely silent on the prospect of a peace deal.

Clearly, he supports Kerry's exuberant plan if it's feasible — presidents, not secretaries of state, make foreign policy.

Just as clearly, though, Obama has no intention of channeling Bill Clinton. If April 30 passes without a deal, expect to hear no more about it from this White House.

This president has bigger problems to deal with, and some of them may actually be solvable.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.