By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON: Two qualities rarely associated with modern secretaries of state are patience and keeping your mouth shut in public. But in his first six months, John Kerry has demonstrated both — and his stubborn silence appears to have brought him to the door of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
“The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private,” Kerry insisted last Friday in Amman while announcing an agreement to resume direct final-status talks after a three-year break. He stressed his point by saying: “The people who know the facts are not talking about them.”
There has been a little of Captain Ahab in Kerry’s quest. He has made six trips to the Middle East, shuttling back and forth trying to coax concessions on what President Obama in 2010 called “as intractable a problem as you get.” Perhaps because of Obama’s frustrations, White House officials concede that Kerry has been operating mostly on his own.
Kerry has persisted, to growing yawns and catcalls from Washington observers. Jeffrey Goldberg, a well-informed columnist for Bloomberg and The Atlantic, said Kerry was on a “fool’s errand.” The buzz before last Friday’s announcement was that Kerry had botched his first six months by obsessively pursuing the great white whale of the peace process, and ignoring more urgent problems such as Egypt and Syria.
Kerry’s solitary, stubborn pursuit of this deal is in character. After losing the 2004 presidential race, he has the advantage of having failed at something in the most public way possible — which can be liberating. He also has been involved in U.S. foreign policy so long that he understands that the Israeli-Palestinian issue remains the tent pole in Middle East diplomacy, whatever pundits say.
What is Kerry’s strategy in these talks? Given his stricture that those who know don’t talk, and vice versa, it’s hard to be sure, but here are some basic outlines.
Kerry has gotten the two sides to agree on initial confidence-building measures. The Israelis will agree to release a significant number of Palestinian prisoners who were arrested before the 1994 Oslo agreement. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said that the roughly 100 pre-Oslo prisoners are a crucial issue for him.
The Palestinians, in exchange, have agreed to forgo for at least six months playing their trump card, which is taking statehood to the United Nations, where this time they could get support from major European nations, perhaps including Britain and France. This gives Kerry a window until year-end to see if he can reach a deal.
The two sides have also agreed that in the final-status negotiations beginning soon, they will first address the interlocking issues of the Palestinian state’s borders and the security of Israel after the state is created.
On borders, Kerry favors the standard U.S. formula of “1967 lines, plus swaps.” But there’s no Israeli agreement yet on that framework, so the negotiations will stress the boundaries of the new state, as opposed to the old lines. The Palestinians appear ready to allow Israeli to keep big settlement blocks just north and south of Jerusalem that contain somewhere between 50 percent and 60 percent of the West Bank settlers; the Israelis want more settlements included.
The security arrangements are being framed by Gen. John Allen, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan. He has been listening to Israeli concerns about how they will remain safe alongside a future Palestinian state. Allen wants to reassure Israelis that they won’t be creating another rocket-launching pad like Gaza.
Kerry did two smart things to grease the process. He convinced the Arab League to amend its 2002 peace initiative to drop the old demand for a return to the 1967 lines and instead allow border swaps. And the Arab League renewed its promise of eventual recognition of Israel. Kerry also encouraged Israeli and Arab entrepreneurs to craft a showy $4 billion plan that hints at the prosperity that could come with peace and Palestinian statehood.
To manage the detailed negotiations, Kerry will turn to his longtime aide Frank Lowenstein, perhaps joined by Martin Indyk, a highly regarded former U.S. ambassador to Israel. In a 2012 book Indyk co-authored, he summed up the problem facing negotiators: “Nowhere in Obama’s foreign policy has the gap been wider between promise and delivery than in the Middle East.”
Kerry has been plugging along these past six months and he seems to have gotten somewhere. People rarely make money gambling on Middle East peace, but once again, it’s time to place your bets.
Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.