Earlier this week, Haaretz revealed the contents of the draft peace proposals developed by Secretary of State John Kerry and presented to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in early 2014. The documents are the most comprehensive American attempt to present the outlines of a peace agreement since Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began more than a quarter of a century ago. What the texts demonstrate, strikingly, is how inadequate and uninformed was Kerry’s understanding of the building blocks that a peace agreement must entail.
Neither of the two versions of the American text — one prior to the February 2014 Kerry-Abbas meeting and another, somewhat more advanced, leading up to the March 2014 Obama-Abbas meeting — brought about a breakthrough. And how could they? They did not embody a substantive improvement on what has been discussed before.
In The Only Language They Understand, Nathan Thrall shows how embracing Israel does not ensure the coveted Israeli endorsement of parameters that are acceptable to the Palestinians. Rather, American leaders brought about Israeli-Arab agreements only through toughness and coercion.
Kerry, in the best tradition of modern American negotiators, was too immersed in the Washington truism that Thrall eloquently debunks and naturally pre-coordinated his positions with Israel. At best, he mistakenly thought this would buy him goodwill down the road; at worst, he thought it was the right thing to do because, well, everybody else did it. And so, what Kerry thought were ideas Abbas couldn’t possibly reject, were offhandedly rejected. Perhaps Abbas would not accept any peace proposal other than his own. This should be tested. But he certainly didn’t — and won’t — accept ideas he deems to be a recitation of, and at times unmistakably inferior to, positions Israelis and Americans have presented in the past.
Clearly, on Jerusalem the American language fell significantly short of what Palestinians heard in the past. While Clinton, Barak, and Olmert endorsed Palestinian sovereignty in all the Arab parts of East Jerusalem (except the Old City, where Olmert envisioned an internationalized special regime), Kerry succumbed to Netanyahu’s intransigence against Palestinian sovereignty in any part of Jerusalem, limiting the American position to a mere acknowledgment of Palestinian aspirations there. Only after having discredited himself by articulating this overtly Israeli-biased formula in February did Kerry ultimately arrive at ideas inferior to, but not contradicting, what Clinton had introduced in 2000.
On refugees, the American text unabashedly and exclusively addressed Israeli interests but failed to even mention narrative issues dear to Palestinians: recognition of refugee rights and of responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem. Clinton, Barak, and Olmert dealt to varying degrees with these issues. The Palestinians rejected all formulas as insufficient. Why Kerry believed his inferior formula would be acceptable to Abbas is a mystery.
Finally and most elaborately, we arrive at the question of borders. At least three members of Kerry’s team and one informed outsider told me — both during and after Kerry’s failed effort — that Netanyahu went “even beyond Olmert” on borders. It sounded unreliable, but I eagerly anticipated the publication of the text.
The American language stated that borders will be based on the 1967 lines with “mutually-agreed swaps whose size and location will be negotiated,” so that Palestine’s eventual territory will be “corresponding in size” to the West Bank and Gaza territory conquered by Israel in 1967. These positions, in some variations, are what Palestinians had heard from Clinton, Bush, Obama, Barak, and Olmert. And despite the good intentions of them all, it falls short of Abbas’s basic need: that swaps — representing a compromise on top of the Palestinian historic compromise of forfeiting 78 percent of historical Palestine and settling for the 22 percent that is the West Bank and Gaza — will need to be equal in size and quality. And despite all past evidence that any attempt to gain an advantage for Israel of even one-half of one percent in the swap ratio is a deal breaker, Kerry and his team stretched the English language to its limits, avoiding at all cost the only word that could bring about a breakthrough: ‘equal.’
In his memoir, “The Missing Peace,” the ultimate pro-Israel negotiator Dennis Ross wrote of internal American deliberations leading up to the introduction of the Clinton Parameters in 2000. Most of the American negotiators called for equal swaps. Ross overruled them, and Clinton’s formula ultimately outlined swaps favoring Israel. The result of such strategies, notably, lays in Ross’s title.
To be sure, one does not need to simply endorse the Palestinian narrative or positions. One can also argue for any number of reasons that Israel should not be making the necessary compromises for an agreement. But to both seek a conflict-ending agreement and at the same time not grasp the Palestinian ethos that underpins the integrity of the 1967 territory, their envisioned capital in East Jerusalem and their yearning for historical recognition and earthly caring for refugees — is to engage in fantasy bordering on self-delusion.
Kerry tried to square an un-squarable circle: he tried to get Netanyahu and Abbas to agree to the same text. The futility of his effort can be best demonstrated by the following question: what parts of the draft language on the core issues of borders, Jerusalem, and refugees (or, for that matter, in Kerry’s December 2016 speech in which he outlined six principles for peace based on his experience) could not have been written in the summer of 2013, before the talks even began? — nothing, of course. And yet by needlessly trying to get Abbas to adopt Netanyahu-friendly language, Kerry missed an opportunity to advance the cause of peace by realigning U.S. positions for future talks. Along the way, he further discredited the peace process, and, with it, his own legacy.