Kerry's Challenge

06/22/2013 12:15 pm 12:15:41 | Updated Aug 22, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry returns to the Middle East this week as part of his continuing effort to launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It will be his fifth visit in just three months and, despite the Secretary's best efforts, prospects for a breakthrough remain bleak.

While the Palestinian side remains in some disarray (more on that later), Kerry's real challenge, I believe, will be to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be more honest about his real intentions. That will not be an easy lift, since being forthcoming has not always been Netanyahu's strong suit. In fact, during his career he has been known by friends and foes alike to be a bit of a dissembler and a maneuverer.

During Netanyahu's first term as prime minister, then-President Clinton found dealing with him to be quite maddening. I recall the famous comment of Uri Avnery, the Israeli peace activist and former Member of Knesset, upon hearing that Clinton had invited Netanyahu to negotiations at the Wye Plantation. Avnery said, "Netanyahu will either say 'no' and not go; or he will say 'yes' and not agree to anything; or he will go, agree, and not implement what was agreed upon." Avnery's observations were on target. Netanyahu chose the third option.

With his return to the post of prime minister, in the early days of President Obama's first term, Netanyahu found himself being pressed by the new and quite popular U.S. president to agree to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This was a tall order for Netanyahu, who during his time as Israeli spokesperson at the Madrid Peace Conference refused to refer to the Palestinian delegation by that name, instead insisting on referring to them as "Jordanians." But, as he has been known to do, Netanyahu bowed to Obama's pressure and delivered a speech in which he appeared to accept the two-state outcome. In the weeks and months that followed, his behavior spoke otherwise. After a few skirmishes with Obama over settlement construction and Palestinian home demolitions and a major confrontation over the U.S. president's declaration that the basis for Israel-Palestinian negotiations should be the 1967 borders with "land-swaps" -- which Netanyahu won, with the backing of a fawning U.S. Congress -- no further efforts were made to advance peace until now.

Both Obama and Secretary Kerry began the president's second term with a renewed push to start negotiations leading to a two-state solution, noting that with the growth of settlements and other construction in the occupied territories time was clearly running out on the possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has maintained the appearance of being a willing partner in this endeavor urging the Palestinians to come forward to negotiate with him, as he famously insists, "without preconditions." But there are clear signs that these appearances are deceiving.

Just last week Netanyahu's gamesmanship was exposed following the issuance of a joint statement after his meetings with his Polish counterpart. The statement read, in part, "the two governments [Israel and Poland] agree about the urgent need for progress toward a two-state solution" adding that both Israelis and Palestinians should avoid "unilateral steps... [that] are not helpful for achieving a sustainable peace." Sensing that this would be interpreted by his far-right governing coalition as a repudiation of new settlement construction, Netanyahu quickly dissociated himself from the statement, with his spokesperson claiming the Israeli side had not reviewed it beforehand.

In the past two weeks, members of Netanyahu's governing coalition have made it even more clear how challenging Kerry's mission will be.

Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (a member of the LIKUD party) was quite blunt, declaring that "there was never a government discussion, resolution, or vote about a two-state solution... if you will bring it to a vote... you will see forces blocking it within the party and the government."

And going further, Netanyahu's Minister of Economy, Naftali Bennett, speaking before a meeting of West Bank settlers stated that "the attempt to establish a Palestinian state in 'our land' (sic) has ended." He went on to liken the Palestinian presence to "shrapnel in the butt," noting that it was uncomfortable, but it was something you learn to live with, instead of risking an operation to remove it.

Netanyahu, facing a storm of criticism for these comments, responded that he, alone, makes foreign policy. He went on to restate his commitment to seeking a "negotiated solution where you'd have a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state" -- adding, as he does, that as part of this arrangement he will insist on control over air, water, and land rights, security arrangements in the Jordan Valley, and control over all of annexed "Greater Jerusalem" etc. This, one supposes, is his interpretation of "negotiations without preconditions."

Even with Netanyahu's claim that he, alone, makes foreign policy, and despite the deal-breaking terms he insists upon, Deputy Minister Danon's observation that the Israeli government has not and would not support a Palestinian State because "it was not the policy of the government" must be seen as deeply troubling. If a peace agreement is negotiated by Netanyahu and rejected by his government, because, as Danon makes clear, it is not something to which they have ever agreed, then where are we?

Who is Netanyahu fooling, his cabinet and government, or the U.S. president and secretary of state? This is what John Kerry will have to discern as he attempts to move forward.

As I have already noted, problems abound on the Palestinian side. But it must be noted that their fractured polity and other dysfunctions are a function of living for more than four decades as a captive people under occupation. The notion advanced by President George W. Bush that the Palestinians must first establish themselves as a functioning democracy before they could have a state was and remains bizarre. Given their circumstances, the progress Palestinians have made is significant, but it will always be incomplete since their reality is distorted by their lack of freedom.

What is required for there to be a peace agreement is not that the Palestinians first perfect their state. What must come first is an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Security arrangements will, of necessity, accompany such a withdrawal, but these will require international peacekeeping forces -- something the Israelis have always rejected. Peace will also require an international effort at investment, reconstruction, and resettlement, and support for institution-building. All of this will take time and significant effort.

But first, the Israelis have to support the notion that there should be an independent sovereign Palestinian state on land occupied in the 1967 war. And this, it appears, is a goal to which the Netanyahu government has not yet committed itself. Uncovering whether or not this Israeli government has any intention of moving forward and ending the occupation will be Secretary Kerry's challenge.