Secretary of State John Kerry was in Israel yet again on Thursday and Friday. Upon arriving, he went straight from Ben-Gurion Airport to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas—but had to cut the visit short and hurry to Jerusalem because rare blizzard conditions were developing.
Kerry managed to meet with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu after that, however, even as the presumably harried Netanyahu was also dealing with emergency problems of downed power lines, perilously stranded cars, and the like.
Kerry, however, pronounced himself buoyant and optimistic about the peace talks as always. Before leaving Israel for Vietnam he told reporters that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were on track to iron out all their disagreements by April, and that:
The core framework, if you want to call it that, which we are discussing with respect to this, centers on the critical issues…. Borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and an end to conflict and to all claims.
A less upbeat assessment, however, came from Khaled Abu Toameh, who reported that Kerry’s meeting with Abbas “did not achieve a breakthrough”; that Abbas’s spokesman said the Palestinians “won’t accept any Israeli presence on our land”; and that Abbas gave Kerry a letter in which he “reiterated his complete opposition to demands to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”
The refusal to “accept any Israeli presence on our land” seemed particularly pertinent, since according to reports the talks have lately been centering on Kerry’s proposal to leave a limited Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley for a limited time (variously cited as five, ten, or fifteen years). The Washington Post had already reported that
Neither side is on board with [the idea]….
For…Netanyahu, limiting the number of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley, and how long they can be there, would not guarantee safety.
For…Abbas, who has promised his people they would not see a single Israeli soldier on Palestinian land in a future state, any army presence would be too much.
The Post, not a bastion of Israeli hawkishness, went on to add that:
A generation of Israeli generals has considered the Jordan Valley a crucial eastern flank against a land invasion of the Jewish state from the east.
So the talks, to which Kerry affixed a nine-month time span, have been going on since late July and, according to these and other reports, still have not reached first base. Netanyahu has said that ensuring Israel’s security comes first, and only then can the other none-too-simple matters like Jerusalem, refugees, and an end to claims be addressed.
If Abbas, though, after five months of Kerry’s earnest involvement and frequent Jerusalem-Ramallah shuttles, remains dead-set against even security arrangements for Israel that Israel sees as inadequate, it is hard to fathom where Kerry’s dauntless optimism comes from.
Kerry, indeed, with some sense that the Jordan Valley is not an easy issue, has delegated Gen. John Allen (who earlier this year turned down a position as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander), with a team of no less than 160 defense and intelligence experts, to come up with ideas on how to resolve it to both sides’ satisfaction.
What they have not—presumably—been asked to do, however, is explain how to square the circle: how to convince Israel that, after five or fifteen or whatever years, it can safely contract to a width of nine miles in the less than stable Middle East; and how to convince Abbas to accept an arrangement—of Israeli troops remaining in the Palestinian Authority after an agreement—that he has repeatedly and consistently rejected as out of the question.
And even if that circle were somehow to be squared, Kerry would need to appoint further teams of experts to work out (among other things): how Jerusalem can be both undivided (the position of Netanyahu and most of his government) and divided (the position, repeated with mantric insistence, of the Palestinian Authority); how millions of descendants of Arabs who left Israel over sixty years ago can both not “return” to Israel (Israel’s position) and “return” to it (the Palestinian Authority’s position); and how Abbas can both recognize (Netanyahu’s demand) and not recognize (Abbas’s demand) Israel as a Jewish state.
And what would be the “prize” if all the miracles could somehow be achieved? An indefensible Jewish state, pushed back to a nine-mile width by the “diplomacy” of a country with a three-thousand-mile width; the reversion of Judea and Samaria to total Muslim rule; jihadists from Syria and elsewhere spilling over the porous borders of Palestine and turning Palestine itself, Israel, and Jordan into a cauldron of instability and danger.
Israel already has a precedent, none too encouraging, of Secretary Kerry’s diplomatic skill, as Iran pockets the Geneva deal along with billions of dollars of sanctions relief while not even pretending to give up its nuclear plans.
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