John kerry, a veteran politician and seasoned candidate, but a beginner diplomat, should have known better than raising the bar of expectations regarding his latest shuttle round of diplomacy between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Aman. When it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, in fact when dealing with the Middle East, modesty, low profile and realistic expectations are the order of the day, rather than such glowing spins as those which came out of his entourage with such ease in the last few days.
The flying secretary did not have a breakthrough, no summit between Netanyahu and Abbas and no announcement about the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks, something which was predicted with a great deal of certainty just few days ago. Yet, the secretary maintains his optimistic approach, and he may end up again in the region in the next few days. Optimism and resilience are clearly essential ingredients for any successful Middle Eastern negotiations, but timing is also of the essence, and the current timing is simply not conducive to a breakthrough.
It is to Cairo and Damascus, and to a lesser extent Beirut, that all eyes are tuned to, including in Jerusalem and Ramallah. When such momentous events take place, the leaders of parties which can be directly and ominously affected by what is happening tend to be doubly cautious. Think of the average Israeli who watches the pictures from Cairo, where the Egyptian President of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most sworn enemies of Israel and peace with it, is appearing on a joint American and Israeli flags, waived by his political opponents, who are conceived to be More "liberal," moderate and by implication, peace supporters... So, Morsi is really an American and Israeli agent, and we did not know about that?
This is the theatre of the absurd at its worst, but this is Egypt circa July 2013 and the average Mr. Cohen in Israel is entitled to be confused, bewildered and increasingly worried about the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace. This Mr. Cohen is, under these circumstances, less than more likely, to advocate major concessions to the Palestinians. The same reaction is to be expected when the pictures and voices from Damascus are coming, and Syrian rebels blame Bashar Assad, the ally of Hezbollah and Iran, Israel's other sworn enemies, for being a stooge of the US and Israel. If it sounds crazy, then it really is, but a state of crazed emotions is more normal in the Middle East than a state of quiet and sober assessment of political prospects and options.
Then there are the Palestinians who watch the situation unfolding in the neighboring countries, the bloodshed which tears apart their own brothers, and they are also having their dose of confusion and uncertainty. Let us think about Hamas sympathizers who will naturally support Iran and Hezbollah, their enemy's greatest enemy, but instead, hear from their leaders that they should support the Syrian rebels, because this is a Sunni-Sh'iite war that matters most, rather than the jihad against the "Zionists"....
Then they and other Palestinians watch Muhammad Morsi, the Egyptian president delivers a speech to his supporters in a hall wrapped with Egyptian and Syrian rebels flags. So where is the Palestinian problem and plight in the current Middle East? Well, it is there, but VERY low on the list of priorities of the key Arab players. The frustration that comes with this painful realization is definitely not constituting an incentive for moderation, and this is the sense in Ramallah, as well as in Gaza. People and leaders want to wait and see, and so Kerry came at the wrong time.
Yet the secretary comes with the right message. Something has to be done in order to break the deadlock. It may seem an innocuous situation right now, surely when compared to the killing fields in Syria, and the simmering pre-eruption situation in Egypt, but sometimes quiet can still be misleading. Bad things happen in Israel and among the Palestinians. The common denominator is a sense of hopelessness that a peace solution is possible.
In Israel, the left wing is weak and drifting towards marginality, whereas in the right wing among settlers and militant Likudniks there is a growing call for Israel to abandon, once and for all, the notion of a two-state solution. At least one deputy minister from Likud publicly calls for virtual annexation of the West Bank, claiming that the demographic problem, so often mentioned as the most important trigger for the two-state solution, is just a scare tactic, and Israel could live with a very sizable Palestinian minority. This is becoming a more popular voice in Likud, and this is what is also advocated by the Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett.
This is BAD for Israel, but Netanyahu is the one leader who can still reverse this dangerous trend; but he has not done that. He fails to show leadership, even though sources close to him keep leaking to the press that he fully understands the shape of things to come. But Netanyahu is not alone, and you need two for a tango, and the Palestinian partners show no readiness to move away from their intransigent positions and the setting of prior, unacceptable conditions.
So, while the parties watch the mayhem all over them, they may not have any real incentive to change course at the current juncture, but leadership is all about shaping the future, rather than being shaped by the present and past, as significant as they are.
A way out of the limbo? Well, nothing dramatic right now, but some small steps of goodwill, such as the unilateral release of some Palestinian detainees by Israel, stopping inflammatory anti-Jewish programs on the official Palestinian TV station, and also less bombastic, more realistic expectations by the US, the one side that can work with both sides when the right circumstances appear.