Despite long odds, Secretary Kerry shows derring-do

The New York TimesDecember 19, 2013 

I don’t know whether Secretary of State John Kerry will succeed in his two big chosen priorities: trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace and a detente with Iran that deprives it of a nuclear weapon. But I admire his relentlessness.

I admire the way he dares to fail – the only way to become a consequential secretary of state. And I admire his strategy: trying to construct a diplomacy that makes it impossible for Israel, the Palestinians and Iran to continue avoiding their big existential choices.

Strip away the details of the Iran deal and, at its core, Kerry is offering Tehran this choice: Do you want to be a big North Korea or a Persian China? If you want your power and influence to be defined by how many nuclear weapons you can make, you can do that, but you will be a big failed state, largely isolated from the rest of the world, with your people never able to realize their full potential.

If you want your greatness to be defined by the talent and energy of your people – which will be fully unleashed once sanctions are removed and they can reintegrate with the world after 34 years of semi-isolation – you’ll have to abandon all nuclear enrichment except for limited research and electrical needs. You choose. A better deal is not coming.

To Palestinians, Kerry is saying: You want to maintain the unity of the Palestinian people; you want an independent state in 100 percent of the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem; you want the total removal as soon as possible of all Israeli troops and settlements; and you want to be able to maintain some hostility to Israel in your textbooks and diplomacy.

I can probably get you 95 percent of the West Bank with swaps from Israel to compensate for the rest and a toehold in East Jerusalem, but you’ll have to give up the hostility and probably your unity – because there will be virtually no return of refugees to pre-1967 Israel, and Israeli troops will have to be permitted to maintain defensive positions in the Jordan Valley for at least a decade.

I know, it is half a loaf, but it is real bread. You can always wait another 100 years.

To Israelis, Kerry is saying: You want a Jewish state, a state in all of the Land of Israel and a democratic state. You can have two out of three. You can be Jewish and in all the Land of Israel, but you will not be democratic, because the Arabs in the West Bank and Israel will constitute too big a voting bloc for you to tolerate democratically.

You can be Jewish and democratic, but then you can’t hold onto the West Bank. You can be democratic and in all the Land of Israel, but then you can’t be a Jewish state (see point No. 1). You choose. A better deal is not coming.

This is not a simple choice for Israel, given the Arab turmoil around it. Kerry’s strategy has been to get the Pentagon to design a security scheme for the West Bank and Jordan Valley that would rely on satellites and other high-tech infrastructure to take the security question off the table as much as possible, so the choice for Israel is ideology versus a workable peace. Israeli officials, though, argue that the U.S. plan is insufficient.

The truth is, no security arrangement is foolproof. The only thing that might be foolproof is, along with the best security tools, giving Palestinians a state worth their defending and preserving by surprising them with a little trust – exactly the way Nelson Mandela surprised South African whites.

What Palestinians do and say matters. But what Israelis do and say also conditions what Palestinians do and say – and vice versa.

Up to now, neither this Palestinian leadership nor this Israeli leadership has shown an ounce of “Mandela-ism.” Everything they do to and for each other is grudging and fraught with suspicion, so there is never any sense of surprise. Without some trust breakthrough, I don’t see how a big deal gets done.

But the status quo is not benign. Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the West Bank are mounting. With no deal, it could easily explode. Also, Israel’s steady expansion of settlements in the West Bank is giving its enemies more fodder to delegitimize the Jewish state.

I am no fan of settlements, but I am also no fan of bigoted, one-sided boycotts of Israeli academic institutions like the one announced Monday by the American Studies Association, or ASA. (China threatens to throw out the U.S. press. Russia tries to rip Ukraine away from the European Union. But the ASA singles out Israel for condemnation?)

Does the ASA even believe that Jews have a right to their own state anywhere in Palestine? After all, the ASA statement says it opposes “the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” not specifying the West Bank.

But I fear for Israel. If Israel doesn’t stop the settlement madness, denying the Palestinians a West Bank state, it will fit the caricature of its worst enemies.

No question – for America, Israel and the Palestinians, no deal is still better than a bad deal that blows up the morning after. What Kerry is trying to put together are decent, hardheaded deals, in which opportunities can legitimately outweigh the risks for all sides.

His chance of succeeding on the Iran or Israel-Palestine fronts is very low, but I greatly respect his daring to fail.

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.

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