John Kerry’s extraordinary efforts to make peace between Israel and Palestine through six months of bilateral talks have produced no significant results. Kerry, determined to succeed, is turning to a “framework” that would create a new basis for continued negotiations. The framework has not yet been released. But if it is a clear outline of an American plan for peace, not just a collection of ideas that avoids laying out U.S. positions, it could be a game changer.
Such a framework outlining the main elements of a peace agreement would be a major departure from years of failed U.S. diplomacy that has relied heavily on bilateral negotiations between unequal parties, one of whom is occupied by the other. It would be the first clear and specific American vision of peace since the short-lived “Clinton Parameters” that were proposed in late 2000.
If such a new framework reflects the basic interests of both parties and is pursued with firmness and empathy, it could revive hope, strengthen pragmatic forces on both sides, and mobilize political majorities for peace.
Such a scenario would not unfold quickly. The deadlocked bilateral talks have confirmed that there is no perception of shared interests between the Benjamin Netanyahu government and Mahmoud Abbas’ PLO. The two leaderships remain diametrically opposed on the final status issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and security.
Netanyahu’s predominantly right-wing coalition is adamantly opposed to compromise. Settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is accelerating, and hardly a day passes without strident criticism of Kerry from Netanyahu’s right-wing allies. Their contempt and mockery of Kerry’s peace efforts reached a new low when Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon, the second most powerful official in Israel, insulted Kerry, calling him “naïve” and “messianic” and expressing the wish that he would go home. Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett regularly declares that there will be no Palestinian state, and recently predicted that Jews who might choose to live in such a state would be killed. A Likud member of the Knesset has even offered legislation for annexation of the Jordan Valley. These attacks on Kerry are a combination of chutzpah and fear that reveal how Kerry has caught the attention of the Greater Israel right and has it worried.
Kerry has patiently given the parties an opportunity to try to make peace through bilateral talks. His shift to a framework appears to signal a more assertive and central role for U.S. mediation to break the impasse. To be effective, the framework should at least fortify and update the Clinton parameters for a final status peace agreement.
A strong U.S. framework for peace would emphasize America’s strong commitment to Israel’s security and to Palestinian self-determination. It would be pursued with empathy for both sides, but also with the firmness and determination that has been lacking in the past.
The premise of this more dynamic approach is that if Kerry, with Barack Obama’s full backing, pursues such a plan with strength and determination, it could ultimately galvanize the politics of Israel and Palestine, reviving hope and creating an environment that would make peace possible.
Such an American policy would challenge both Netanyahu and Abbas. Neither would be likely to openly oppose a thoughtful American peace plan and take the blame for failure. Netanyahu would face a dilemma and would try to buy time, knowing that if he compromises he could lose his right-wing coalition, but that if he does not he would further alienate Washington and the rest of the world—and that the Palestinians might take Israel to the UN as Abbas has threatened.
But Netanyahu might also resolve his dilemma by shedding his extreme coalition partners and creating a center-left and peace-minded coalition with the Labor, Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Shas, and Meretz parties. Such abandonment by Netanyahu of his ideological heritage would be out of character and a long shot. But he could make a virtue out of political necessity, preserving his leadership and transforming himself into a peacemaker.
Abbas’ margins for compromise are narrower than those of Netanyahu. But he could offer some nuanced flexibility on the Jewish state and refugee issues. Also, he would be in a stronger position to reconcile with Hamas if the United States can revive hope for a two-state peace agreement.
Since Abbas and the Palestinians believe that they have compromised massively by agreeing to a Palestinian state in 22 percent of their former homeland, the United States should be wary of drafting a framework plan that tries to split the two parties’ differences down the middle, for example, on borders, settlements, and Jerusalem.
Obama and Kerry must also expect opposition at home, especially in Congress, to any U.S. plan that demands major compromises by Israel. But if they can mount a genuine peace process promising an end to the conflict and sustain it with both strength and sympathy, Congress is unlikely to stop it. Indeed, there would likely be broad and deep support from the American Jewish community as well as American Christians, Arabs, and Muslims for a strong, fair American plan.
Also, there are stirrings in the center-left Labor and Yesh Atid parties in Israel that suggest that they would support a new American peace plan. Israel’s business leaders are deeply worried about their country’s growing isolation and the threat of economic and other sanctions. For these reasons, Israel’s business elite is also mobilizing for peace.
Finally, polls continue to show that majorities in both Israel and Palestine want peace and would support a comprehensive plan for a two-state agreement in principle, notwithstanding the continuing deep skepticism that this is still possible. A new American plan could be the catalyst for renewed hope in peace.
Ultimately, diplomats in secret talks will not bring peace. American diplomacy must at an early stage begin to engage more fully the Israeli and Palestinian publics, who will ultimately decide their futures. A fresh approach to public diplomacy aimed at both sides and based on an American framework will be needed.
This is a very optimistic scenario, given the long history of failure. Skeptics will continue to argue that such a bold American effort to rescue Israel and Palestine is too late. But failure to move in this direction could push Israel and Palestine closer to the abyss. After Kerry’s unprecedented investment in serious new diplomacy, retreat would also have grave consequences for America’s waning credibility in the Middle East and elsewhere. Of course, the possibility of failure is large, but this should not deter the United States from doing its best.