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Michael Shtender-Auerbach Headshot

Reality Check: The US Does Have Leverage

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"It's reality check time," Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday as he challenged Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to "take constructive steps" and "move forward." But as the Israelis and Palestinians take their "reality check," Secretary Kerry and his team should do the same, especially regarding what leverage the United States has to keep the process moving forward or -- if the process is indeed doomed to failure -- how to end it on terms that advance American policies, interests and values.

Admittedly, the situation at the moment looks grim: After months of negotiations, a dozen personal visits from the secretary, and countless trips between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Israel is announcing new settlements and reneging on its agreement to release a small number of Palestinian prisoners this weekend. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are making symbolic gestures at the the United Nations that manage to simultaneously be both petty and toxic. For its part, the United States has been reduced to offering up the spy Jonathan Pollard just to keep Israel at the negotiating table. If anything worthwhile is going to come of this process, Secretary Kerry is going to have to do something bold enough to shatter the status quo.

First and foremost, Kerry must make it clear that the Israelis aren't doing the U.S. a favor by showing up to negotiate, and therefore it is unacceptable for them to make demands of the U.S. just to stay at the table. That means Jon Pollard -- who was caught spying on the United States for Israel in 1987 -- is not a bargaining chip. Far from being a Mossad agent or loyal Israeli spy, Pollard was a freelancer selling secrets to the Israeli government for profit. Releasing him before his parole in 2015 would be a morale-destroying outrage for the American intelligence community and make Kerry look desperately weak, so it needn't be discussed any further. Israel must be made to understand that it stays at the table because it's our ally and we've asked them to.

Kerry must also make it clear that the United States will hold the Israeli government accountable for violations of its agreements with the Palestinians and for continuing to expand settlements. The Obama administration made a mistake in its first term when it demanded a halt to settlement expansion as a pre-condition for negotiations, but that doesn't mean it can't outline clear consequences for acts of bad faith. After all, it's better for the United States to be the enforcer of agreements between the parties than for the parties to try and hold each other accountable -- or more likely punish each other with escalating hostile actions, as happened last week.

Additionally, Kerry needs to demand that the Palestinian leadership stop making maneuvers at the UN and other international bodies which are, at present, deeply counterproductive. Palestinian leaders are rightly frustrated by Israel's refusal to release Palestinian prisoners, as per an earlier agreement, and the Palestinians see their requests for accession to international conventions and treaties as an opportunity to "level the playing field." They believe that membership in international organizations will force the Israelis to negotiate with them as equals and raise the possibility of Palestine joining the International Criminal Court -- which could be diplomatically devastating to Israel. But the Palestinian Authority agreed to abstain from applying to such organizations during the negotiating process, which is set to end on April 29th, and by applying early, they not only tarnish Secretary Kerry's prestige, they also give Israel an opening to credibly blame the Palestinians for the negotiations' failure. The secretary must make it clear that this kind of pointless poke in the eye will not be tolerated.

All of these demands raise the question of what leverage the United States has over these parties, and the answer is: plenty. The Palestinian Authority, not to mention the West Bank economy, exists by the grace of international support, with billions coming from the United States. On the other hand, the U.S. has also lavished 165 billion dollars in aid to Israel since 1948 and continues to be Israel's greatest advocate on the international stage -- even when doing so means vetoing UN resolutions that are based verbatim on U.S. policy. Put another way: we're funding both sides of this conflict and it's about time their respective leaders started acting like they remember that, especially considering that peace is in their own interests even more than it is in ours.

Kerry also needs to follow through on his promise to release the framework agreement that the parties have been working on, with or without their endorsement. That means explicitly detailing the parameters of a two-state solution: a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, 1967 borders with reciprocal land swaps to bring 80% of Israeli settlers into Israel, Palestinian right of return only to the new Palestinian state, compensation both for Palestinian refugees and for Jewish refugees from Arab countries after 1948. Kerry should then get the document endorsed by the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia), and possibly even the UN Security Council.

Releasing these parameters will have several important effects. It will begin to acclimate the Israeli and Palestinian publics to the compromises they will have to make for peace; the Oslo process was brought down in part by the distance forming between what the negotiators were talking about and what their publics were prepared to accept. Getting an agreement endorsed internationally would also reduce the latitude of the parties in future negotiations. So while it may presently be impossible to get the Palestinians and Israelis to agree on a solution, by introducing it and getting it endorsed internationally, Secretary Kerry could help keep the possibility of a two-state solution alive until both sides are ready to elect leaders who will enact it.

Kerry has invested too much in these talks and handled them with too much grace to allow the parties to end them in a blaze of mutually consuming humiliation. By standing tough now, Kerry can give these negotiations their best shot at survival while also saving face and laying the groundwork for peace later if the talks fail.