Op-Ed: The Mideast peace gap: Why Kerry has failed

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Washington.
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks in Washington.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Why exactly did Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s well-intentioned effort to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement fail?


Middle East: A May 11 Op-Ed article on the failure of Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s Mideast peace talks called Benjamin Netanyahu the longest continuously serving Israeli prime minister. He is the second longest. —

In a fascinating postmortem, unnamed American officials involved in the negotiations told Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea the following: “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth — the primary sabotage came from the settlements.”

If you believe that, I have a bridge over the mighty Jordan River to sell you.

Nobody doubts the destructive impact of settlement activity. It prejudges and predetermines the outcome of negotiations, humiliates Palestinians and sends unmistakable signals that Israel has other agendas to pursue. And if we’re talking about the failure of Kerry’s effort to secure a relatively meaningless extension of the talks, I don’t doubt the explanation.


But let’s be clear: Kerry’s peace process didn’t fail primarily because of settlements. It has been on life support from the beginning, and here’s why.

The mini/max problem: Simply put, the maximum that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to give on the core issues that drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be aligned, let alone reconciled, with the minimum that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to accept. You want to know why every effort in the last decade has failed? That’s why.

The gaps on Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state are simply too big to bridge. They are not amenable to being resolved gradually and not feasible as a package of trade-offs that both sides can accept. We can rationalize, and blame one side or the other. But the price for a conflict-ending agreement is simply too high for each side to bear.

Courting Bibi: The idea that Netanyahu is ready to pay the price and could be persuaded to do so was a fundamental misunderstanding of the man and his times. Now the longest continuously serving prime minister in Israel’s history, Bibi never envisioned himself as the midwife or father of a Palestinian state. That’s not who he is. Ideology, family, politics and his fears of the Arabs all drive him in a different direction.

His self-image is as the Israeli leader who is to lead Israel out of the shadow of the Iranian nuclear bomb and to guide it through the challenges of a dangerously broken, angry and dysfunctional Arab world. And he reflects the mood of an Israeli public that sees almost no reason or urgency — regardless of U.S. doom-and-gloom threats of violence, third intifadas, apartheid state or demography — to grapple with the problem. Governing is about choosing. And for now, Netanyahu has made his choice.

Banking on Abbas: The Palestinians were the weakest party to the negotiations, and the notion that they could be counted on to make concessions that would take them beyond their established consensus — June 1967 borders, a capital in East Jerusalem, some semblance of sovereignty on the security issue and a resolution to the refugee problem that doesn’t force a wholesale capitulation — was the other illusory assumption. Under Yasser Arafat, a leader with more street cred and legitimacy than Abbas, Palestinians were not prepared to depart from this consensus. Why would Abbas — a much weaker leader — be prepared to do it, or accede to demands that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state?


The issue is not what Abbas was prepared to tell Kerry or Netanyahu in private. It is what he was prepared to say publicly and what he needed to be paid to say it. Abbas is presiding over a weak economy and a divided Palestinian national movement that looks like Noah’s ark, in which there are two of everything (polities, security services, constitutions and even visions of Palestine). He has very little Arab state support. The notion that he could be depended on for major deliverables was a fantasy.

Indeed, American negotiators, myself included, have been underestimating what Palestinians need in negotiations for years. Abbas always had a Plan B: going to the U.N., negotiating unity with Hamas, even toying with dissolving the Palestinian Authority. He’s much more comfortable in that milieu, and Netanyahu is more comfortable being a security prime minister rather than a peace prime minister. Abbas feels no urgency either to negotiate a peace that doesn’t meet his needs.

Kerry’s last chance: Nobody could argue that it was wrong for Kerry to try to see what he could do about the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But nobody should be surprised that he couldn’t succeed. Kerry’s effort was very much built around what he saw as his moment and assessment that the time was ripe, when in fact it wasn’t. Neither side saw much urgency in the Kerry effort, and President Obama wasn’t prepared to endorse an approach in which Kerry would have pressured Israel directly or even indirectly by putting forth an American plan.

It was probably not a great idea for Kerry to describe his effort as the last chance or to frame the consequences of what might happen (largely to Israel) if no two-state solution were achieved. The parties can’t be scared into an agreement. And, if this is the last chance, then the question hangs: Why didn’t Kerry and the president make this their single most important preoccupation and do everything they could, including intense pressure on the parties to reach an agreement?

Sooner or later some kind of peace process will resume. Like rock ‘n’ roll, the peace process will never die. The question is whether it will succeed. As for the U.S., it remains trapped in a peace process that is adrift between a two-state solution Washington can’t abandon and one that it cannot implement. But next time around, let’s at least be honest about why we can’t achieve it. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians — nor Obama — is willing or able to pay the price of what it would cost.

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.”