How the Israel-Palestine Peace Process Collapsed

Three reflections on Kerry's attempts to strike a deal

Kerry waves goodbye to Tel Aviv after attempting to salvage peace talks between between Israelis and Palestinians in April. (Reuters)

In the New Republic, Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon offer an astonishing work of reporting, narrating the demise of John Kerry’s last-ditch attempt to broker a final agreement between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Rich in detail and elegantly written, it is very worth your time.

But let’s face it, it’s a big world full of crises this summer, from the South China Sea to eastern Ukraine. And people are busy. So, just in case you don’t get around to it, here are my three takeaways from the report.

1. The Palestinian side cared more about their preconditions for negotiations than about the negotiations themselves.

The Palestinian side insisted on a price to join these talks, and the price on which they settled was the release of 104 convicted murderers plus another 400 prisoners convicted for lesser crimes. Birnbaum and Tibon quote the disdainful comment of the Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni: “These are your heroes. I don’t know why they are your heroes.” The Palestinian side pressed harder and longer for the releases than it did on any of the big issues supposedly at stake in the talks. Birnbaum and Tibon quote the injunction of President Obama directly to the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas:  “Don’t quibble with this detail or that detail. The occupation will end. You will get a Palestinian state. You will never have an administration as committed to that as this one.” The quibbling, however, did not stop, provoking National Security Adviser Susan Rice (regarded by the Palestinian side as their best friend in the administration) to snap, “You Palestinians can never see the fucking big picture."

2. The Israeli side has utterly lost faith in agreements with the Palestinians.

The agreements of the 1990s, culminating in the 1993 Oslo Accords, were initiated by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. They led to the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn, to the creation of the Palestinian Authority under Arafat’s rule ... and then at last collapsed in the Second Intifada, in which more than 1,000 Israelis lost their lives. Since then, the Palestinian government has split in two. Hamas has taken power in Gaza, and used the territory as a launchpad from which to rocket Israel. Israel went to war in Gaza in December 2008 to stop the rockets. Israel is at war in Gaza again today for the same reason.

Few to none of the Israelis mentioned in the Birnbaum/Tibon piece hold much hope that any agreement will bring real peace with the Palestinians. The optimists believe that even a bad deal is better than continuing to rule over Palestinian populations. The pessimists regard the negotiations as a useless or even dangerous waste of time. The middle ground plays along, in order to humor the United States. Birnbaum and Tibon quote the skeptical Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon: "The only thing that can save us is for John Kerry to win his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”

3. It’s amazing how much more gets done when the secretary of state isn’t running for president.

John Kerry’s initiative failed. But the risk of failure attends every political initiative. It’s fine to calculate how much political risk to accept. But when a secretary of state in pursuit of his or her own political future decides that no risk is acceptable, then nothing much is ever tried. Which is why Hillary Clinton’s record as secretary of state is so blank. By 2012, Obama had apparently given up on hopes of negotiating an Abbas-Netanyahu deal. Kerry’s hopes had dwindled, but not yet died. "I think we have some period of time—in one to one-and-a-half to two years—or it’s over,” Kerry said in 2013. So he tried. He failed. But in other places where is he trying, he seems to be succeeding: smoothing the post-Karzai political transition in Afghanistan, reaching U.S.-Europe consensus on how to respond to Russia in Ukraine. It seems you get a lot more done by doing your job than by positioning and planning for your next one.