Kerry between the possible and the impossible

Secretary of State John Kerry returned to the Middle East for another round of talks about
what is improperly called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, hoping to push forward meaningful negotiations. His trip was promptly labeled “mission impossible.”

What is most disheartening is that both the Israelis and Palestinians dispute any notion that they are closer to an agreement than they were before. When Kerry said that the two sides are closer than they have been to an agreement in a long time, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately denied it. The only sign of a concession on his part was to postpone the announcement that new settlement construction had been authorized.
It is a given that Netanyahu will do so in the very near future.

The Israelis are determined to keep slicing the salami of creeping annexation of the West Bank, damping any Palestinian hope of ever creating a state. Kerry knows well that any projected agreement is unreachable until and unless the Israelis feel that their security needs are totally met. The problem is that those needs call for a remaining Israeli presence in the Jordan valley. The Palestinians, who said that they are willing to accept an international presence on the border in place of Israel’s, are told by the U.S. to be patient.

Kerry deserves great credit for trying hard to focus the negotiations on the prospect of a comprehensive agreement — an agreement that would address all the issues on the table, from settlements to borders, Jerusalem and refugees — an effort that was not undertaken by his predecessor Hillary Clinton and one that President Obama woefully put on the back burner in his first term.

The secretary of state is trying hard to keep some optimism alive, but it looks as if the only grounds for optimism is an interim agreement that the Israelis could accept. Needless to say, the construction of settlements will continue and the Palestinians will denounce it with no chance to exert any real pressure to realize their statehood. For Kerry, the forthcoming deadline of April will tell if his mission, the 10th in the region, will be prove, once again “impossible.”

One has to admire the indefatigable head of American diplomacy as he tries to oversee the critical negotiating process with Iran, the discussions in Geneva about the bloody civil war in Syria and the complicated process of disengagement from Afghanistan.

American public opinion is saying with increasing clarity that it wants the U.S. to stay out of the Syrian meat grinder and get out of Afghanistan. Thus, 2014 is a make-or-break year of for American diplomacy in the Middle East.

One big question is whether Congress can be persuaded that a peace deal can work for Israel and make it safer while facilitating a two state solution. Over the long run, Kerry is going to need all of the support he can get to nail down an agreement with Iran that will eliminate the “break out” possibility of a dangerous nuclear development.

In short, this is the time for making Kerry’s mission possible rather than impossible. On the other hand, one has to recognize the “impossible,” namely the success of a military strategy in Afghanistan that has produced nothing better than a stalemate with a huge cost in terms of human lives and resources.

The fact is that withdrawal from Afghanistan is inevitable and that the only way to salvage the future of that country is a political agreement with the Taliban leadership. Far from growing weaker, the insurgency in Afghanistan is getting stronger.

While some people cry “don’tgive up on Afghanistan,” the reality on the ground makes it difficult to marshal support for a longer Afghan war. Once again, there is a pressing need for international diplomacy to strive for a solution once the obstreperous and corrupt leadership of President Hamid Karzai — whose government holds only the cities and district centers — has run its course.

Just like in the old days of Vietnam, the political strategy is to create a “decent interval” before the Taliban take control of large swaths of Afghanistan. And diplomacy is the only way to try and prevent it.

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