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Memo to John Kerry: Stay strong on the Middle East

There's a new industry in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah. It's called Kerry-bashing: The secretary of State never should have tried to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian deal; he wasted too much time; he's too soft on the Israelis or Palestinians or both; he needs to get on to other issues.

Why the criticism? John F. Kerry has brought the peace process back into focus, he's dragged both sides into talks even though they were loath to make concessions, and he has altered the dialogue and perhaps even attained some concessions behind the scenes. And then it all came crashing down over the sudden Palestinian turn to the United Nations, ostensibly because Israel stalled a few days on an agreement to release prisoners.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' announcement that the group would seek to join 15 international agencies — thereby breaking commitments and presumably breaking the talks — brought on the "I told you so's" from critics. But not so fast. There's a dynamic here that Kerry is clever enough to realize.

If the Israelis had exclusively played the offended party — ready to cooperate but prevented from doing so by irresponsible Palestinian behavior — then most in the West would have been sympathetic and Kerry would have little room to maneuver.

Indeed, the Palestinians would have assumed they had won an important victory, with the Israelis too stunned and the Americans too timid to retaliate. They would have believed that they had a major path to achieving a Palestinian state, without the Israelis and Americans, through the United Nations.

Though this path is an illusion, that was a fantasy that would have seemed viable for a fair amount of time, to Israel's great deficit and Kerry's frustration.

But, as so often happens, the Israeli right inadvertently provided Kerry with an opportunity to save the day. There is no question that this Israeli government does confrontation far better than negotiation. Seemingly relieved of the burden of even contemplating concessions, major Israeli political figures have been competing to see who can come up with more deliciously harmful ways of hurting the Palestinians through sanction-like economic punishments and deprivations. The Israelis have demonstrated that the two sides can play the same game, and Jerusalem has a far wider means of inflicting damage than Ramallah in this kind of competition.

So now the two sides are back to being on about equal footing. Both sides have behaved badly and will have to step back from the precipice, if Kerry plays it right. By leaving a team under U.S. envoy Martin Indyk in place on the scene, the door is open for resurrecting the deal that was on the verge of being completed when the Palestinians decided to move their efforts to the U.N.

An agreement can be envisioned in which Abbas terminates his U.N. gambit, the Israelis withdraw their plans for economic retaliation, the Palestinian prisoners who were going to be released are released, the U.S. releases convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, and possibly the Israelis make some muted statement about restraint on construction in disputed territories in the future. Each side would be able to state that had it not been for their tough actions, a deal would have been impossible.

If something like this scenario transpires, the wisdom of Kerry's approach would suddenly and resoundingly be reinforced. But let's imagine that Kerry is not able to resurrect the talks and a long crisis begins.

The secretary knows, as does his team, that no deals are struck in the Middle East without major crises. For example, when the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement talks broke down in March 1975, it looked as if no easy path was on the horizon. By the end of August, Egypt and Israel signed an agreement. Similarly, after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's monumental trip to Jerusalem in November 1977, there were repeated Israeli-Egyptian crises until the success of Camp David in September 1978, and more crises still until the March 1979 signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Arab-Israeli talks are not for the weak-hearted. Perseverance is the key. Quitting now would be like giving up when you're down by a couple touchdowns early in the fourth quarter. The Bradys and the Mannings pull out the victories under highly adverse-looking circumstances. Whatever they say, Israelis and Palestinians thrive on these kinds of confrontations, and Kerry does too. That's why now is not the time to give up. If he wants any chance of succeeding, Kerry should just be getting started.

Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA and an Israel Policy Forum scholar.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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