This week commentators in Israel, the Arab world, and the United States have been writing the obituaries for Secretary of State John Kerry's attempt to negotiate some sort of peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. I was one of those commentators who wrote the obituary on the talks when they began last summer. I did this because the situation was not ripe for peace. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a party and a coalition that still supports the idea of a Greater Israel created through the ongoing settlement of the West Bank. In 2009 he mouthed his acceptance of the two-state solution in a speech at Bar-Ilan University. But since then he has done nothing to indicate that he really believes in the necessity of such a solution or of Israeli territorial concessions in order to arrive at one. Members of his coalition such as Deputy Defense Minister Dani Danon have spoken out openly against a two-state solution with no punishment from Netanyahu. Meanwhile the Palestinians are divided between the corrupt Fatah Party ruling the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas ruling in Gaza. Hamas, and resistance within his own Fatah prevents PA President Mahmoud Abbas from making the necessary concessions on such things as a right to return to Israel for Palestinian refugees that would be necessary to reciprocate territorial concessions from an Israeli government interested in peace. Both Netanyahu and Abbas were content to rule in peace with no thought towards peace until Kerry came to disturb their tranquility.
Kerry came into office in January 2013 as a replacement for Obama's first choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, after Rice was hobbled by the Benghazi scandal. Kerry, a long-term member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential nominee, took the State Dept. as a concession prize for losing the presidency to George W. Bush. He had three high-profile items
on his agenda, all in the Middle East: negotiating an end to Syria's civil war that had been ongoing since the spring of 2011; negotiating an end to Iran's nuclear weapons project in exchange for a lifting of Western economic sanctions; and negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He has very little hope of negotiating either an end to the civil war or an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and at best a 50-50 chance of negotiating a deal on Iranian nukes that Iran will honor and carry through with.
Obama, an ambitious domestic reformer, sees his 2008 mandate as one to end American involvement in two wars in the Greater Middle East, keep the United States out of further wars, pursue a covert drone war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and pass whatever domestic reforms a Republican House will allow him. In such circumstances, Obama sees the State Dept. mainly as the top patronage prize in his administration to give to either potential future opponents (Clinton) or worthy members of the Democratic Party as a reward for past service. Obama will probably go into serious foreign policy mode following this year's midterm election--especially if the GOP takes control of the Senate. Until then he allows Kerry a fairly-loose leash as long as Kerry pulls no surprises or otherwise embarrasses him.
Kerry is in many ways similar to Republican Secretary of State William Rogers in Nixon's first term in office. Nixon was suspicious of the State Department and so he hired Henry Kissinger to run his foreign policy for him through the National Security Council in the White House. Kissinger regularly consulted with Nixon and the two together planned foreign policy, which Kissinger then executed. Rogers was kept out of dealing with the Soviet Union, China, or the Vietnam War and was allowed to deal with secondary issues like the Middle East--until there was a crisis--and Western Europe. Rogers attempted to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Rogers wanted Israel to return all of the territory captured in 1967 in exchange for peace. Damascus refused to go along with the diplomatic effort. Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to agree to give the West Bank back. By early 1970 Rogers had converted his quest for a comprehensive settlement into one to negotiate a ceasefire in the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal between Egypt and Israel.
Seven years later President Carter repeated the same trajectory after a few months after President Sadat flew to Jerusalem in order to avoid a re-convening of the Geneva Conference for a comprehensive peace. Decades of peace making have demonstrated that Jerusalem can only make peace on one front at a time and that to attempt more than that overloads the circuits. Jerusalem will only make peace with Arab leaders that Israel trusts because of their conduct. Jerusalem also prefers dealing with Arab dictators who rule states than with Palestinian leaders. This is why everything being equal, Israel will prefer to move on the Syrian track rather than the Palestinian track.
Washington will only put pressure on Israel to negotiate when there is a credible partner for peace with whom to negotiate. An American president can seriously attempt to negotiate peace in the Middle East only when he has a Congress controlled by his party or when he is popular enough to compel Congress to go along with him. Obama's popularity ratings in the polls now hover around 40 percent. This is why Obama was content to let Kerry play William Rogers without himself auditioning for the part of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Obama's idea of serious peace making is to travel to the Middle East and make a speech in Cairo or Israel.
The biggest American development in the Middle East peace process over the last decade or so was the creation of a liberal pro-peace Jewish lobby as a counterweight to AIPAC. A group of Jewish Democratic activists got together in the fall of 2002 to create Brit Tzedek vaShalom (Alliance for Justice and Peace). With a headquarters in Chicago and chapters in every major city with a large Jewish population, Brit Tzedek created a grassroots support organization for presidential peacemaking. But as long as Bush was president this was no good. In 2008 former Clinton staffer Jeremy Ben-Ami started a small office in Washington to lobby for American involvement in the peace process. The new lobby, J Street, merged with Brit Tzedek in early 2010 to form a lobby with grassroots chapters around the country. It is still only a fraction of the size of AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee. But that is not its biggest handicap.
The biggest handicap of J Street is a flawed strategy. It is based on the premise that whoever controls the American Jewish community can dictate American Middle East policy. But the most relevant religious community for the Arab-Israeli conflict is not American Jews, but Evangelical Protestants. Jews make up only about two percent of the total population of the United States, but are concentrated in those states with the largest electoral votes like New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, and Connecticut. Because Jews were more politically mobilized than many other ethnic or religious communities they had a greater clout than their share of the population would indicate. But Evangelical Protestants became mobilized in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan. During the time of George W. Bush they became a key constituency in the Republican Party. And because Evangelicals are fundamentalists who take the Bible literally they tend to support Israel as part of the necessary means of bringing about the Second Coming.
During the early 1990s Benjamin Netanyahu formed an alliance between his Likud Party and the Republican Party in America. This alliance is based on the support of several factions within the GOP: neo-Conservatives, Evangelicals and other social conservatives, and many ordinary rank and file Republicans. For the last 30 years divided government has been the norm in the United States with many voters voting a split ticket. Unlike as recently as the George H.W. Bush administration in 1992, no Republican administration is likely to support a peace process that will require putting pressure on Israel for territorial concessions. As long as the Republicans control either house of Congress, they can prevent the administration from either pressuring Israel or prevent it from compensating Jerusalem with additional aid for territorial concessions. Such aid was the basis for American mediation of peace agreements in 1975 and 1979. Thus, J Street does nothing to help a Democratic president make peace in the Middle East that that president did not have before its existence. Here is a link to a similar article of mine on the 972 Magazine website that puts these arguments more succinctly.