John Kerry’s Accomplishment

August 7, 2013
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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with Secretary of State John Kerry. (Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

Many thought that in taking on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Secretary of State John Kerry was embarking on a fool’s errand. But after investing significant time, effort and his own reputation in the process, he was able to bring the parties to the table last week. By achieving that result, Kerry confounded the doubters, at least in the short run. The renewal of talks — even to talk about the talks — is a meaningful success.

One of Kerry’s jobs in the upcoming negotiations — and that of his chief negotiator, Martin Indyk — is to fill the cracks separating the Israeli and Palestinian positions. The Palestinians, for example, want to talk about borders before anything else, while Israel wants to handle all issues at the same time. Kerry reportedly bridged the gap by assuring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the U.S. views the 1967 lines as the basis for border talks.

Under Kerry’s careful guidance, it was good to see that there was some flexibility on both sides. Israel bent on its position of no preconditions when it agreed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners. At the same time, Israel has not agreed to freeze the building of settlements, a key Palestinian demand that led to the collapse of previous talks in 2010.

We hope that the negotiations will set off a spirit of cooperation between the parties. Even symbolic acts can build relations and trust, such as the meeting at the Knesset last week between Palestinian officials and Israeli legislators, where the flags of Israel and Palestine were placed side by side. That meeting was a first for the Knesset and was encouraging.

But there are always reminders of how tenuous the chances for agreement are. When Abbas
declared he “would not see the presence of a single Israeli” in a future Palestinian state, violating Kerry’s wish to keep the terms of the talks under wraps, he painted a stark and disturbing picture of an ethnically clean Palestine in marked contrast to a more welcoming Israel, where its large Palestinian minority has citizenship.

Kerry reportedly told journalists that he was in a hurry to start negotiations to avoid a “train wreck” at the U.N. in the fall, in which the Palestinians would turn to the international community to impose solutions and punish Israel rather than reach a negotiated settlement. We hope that Israel and the Palestinians agree, but it may fall to the secretary to see that they do. And, to the surprise of many, Kerry seems both interested in and capable of bringing the two sides forward. All through the process, however, Kerry has been careful to keep expectations low. His call for results in nine months is consistent with that approach, and it takes immediate pressure off the negotiations.

Whether the parties will be able to accomplish anything meaningful by next spring is unclear. But even if a full agreement is out of their reach, a partial agreement could still improve relations and help address some of the difficult issues that divide the two sides. In that respect, the process alone has real value. And so long as the two sides are talking, it’s to the good.

For what he has accomplished thus far, we give Kerry a guarded thumbs-up. We hope we can give him a full, celebratory high-five in the not-too-distant future.

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