Big Thinking Assures Small Results

Secretary of State John Kerry’s fifth visit to Israel in three months ended Sunday in abject failure. He tried valiantly to paint a bright face on it, claiming to have narrowed the differences between the sides “considerably.”

“I know progress when I see it,” he told reporters on his departure. The problem is that no one else sees it.

Not only was the Secretary unable to convince PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas to sit for a symbolic 10-minute meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (that could be billed as the long-awaited resumption of the peace talks); he couldn’t muster a photo-op or even a meaningless joint statement on peace being in the interest of both peoples. Nothing.

While Kerry deserves the highest marks for sincerity and perseverance, not to mention for courteous conduct, he is failing to exhibit common sense. By continuing to push for some grand peace scheme that everyone knows is unattainable, he misuses the influence of his office and of the United States.

It’s as if the man who holds the top diplomatic post in Washington is the only one who hasn’t noticed that the world, especially the Middle East, has changed in the past 20 years, since the days of the Oslo accords. He doesn’t understand that “two states for two peoples” is on its way to joining the diplomatic junk heap of “land for peace” and the notion that democracy is the panacea for the Arab world.

As a private citizen, even as a prominent U.S. senator, Kerry has every right to hold on to illusions, to dream of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. But as Secretary of State he has a responsibility to see reality as it is, and jettison illusions that can bring disaster to the region.

Is there anyone today who doubts that President Barack Obama was colossally wrong to dump Hosni Mubarak at the start of the Egyptian revolution two years ago? The economic situation in Egypt today is immeasurably worse than it was then, as foreign investors have fled, thousands of factories have closed and tourism has dried up.

Personal safety has deteriorated, as people are afraid to walk outside in broad daylight. Drivers who stop at traffic lights risk being accosted by armed robbers who will seize their cars.

And the much-ballyhooed “first democratically held elections in Egypt’s history” have resulted in millions taking to the streets to demand that the man they elected just last year be replaced.

So what was gained by dumping Mubarak, instead of working with him to force gradual reforms? The region is less stable than ever and the people of Egypt are worse off than ever. Obama’s illusions about the paramount importance of allowing the people to decide for themselves has brought untold suffering to tens of millions of Egyptians and the threat of war closer to the entire region.

The concern is that Kerry, by demonstrating fealty to the illusion of a democratic Palestine with an open, transparent economy and willing to live in peace with Israel, could, chalilah, lead to a similar catastrophe in Yehudah and Shomron. And that, obviously, would be in the interests of neither Israel nor the Palestinians.

To be fair, Kerry is motivated by a genuine desire to help Israel and the Palestinians. He is concerned that Abbas will decide to bypass negotiations with Israel and go to the United Nations, where he has already won an upgrade in the status of “Palestine.” He is afraid that the Palestinian economy — which is heavily dependent on handouts — will collapse. He is worried that in the absence of a solution, Israel will find itself isolated diplomatically and economically as the boycott movement picks up steam. And he fears for the security of Israeli citizens if, chalilah, a third intifada erupts.

But in pushing for sweeping change, Kerry raises unrealistic expectations and prevents realistic progress. According to media reports, Abbas told Kerry at the weekend that he couldn’t back down on his demands that Israel release prisoners serving time for murder and agree on borders of a future Palestinian state as a condition for holding talks, because the “street” won’t let him.

Abbas, who desperately needs U.S. economic and diplomatic support , would have liked nothing more than to throw Kerry a bone and agree to a four-way meeting in Amman with the secretary, Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Abdullah. But he couldn’t overcome his fear of disappointing the Palestinian man in the street.

Kerry is doing everything possible to bring about talks, and Netanyahu is cooperating with unprecedented concessions. But while — sooner or later — conditions will likely be found to start talks, there is absolutely no way they will result in a final-status agreement that resolves all the issues. And if Abbas fears the reaction of the street if he were to give in on his preconditions for talks, one can only imagine the reaction when these talks, and their hopes for statehood, finally collapse.

It is for this reason that Kerry and Netanyahu have to find a way to lower expectations, to signal that two states for two peoples can only be considered at the end of a very long transition process.

In the meantime, the Palestinians will gain economically — assuming that Abbas sets up an honest government that will deliver aid money to the people instead of to the pockets of the leaders — and in many other ways. But statehood? That will have to wait.