John Kerry’s Tricky Bid

by Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

LONDON – In Why You Lose at Bridge (the funniest book about bridge ever written), my uncle, S. J. Simon, advised players to aim “not for the best possible result, but the best result possible” with the partner you have. This advice applies to the long-stalled Israel-Palestine peace process, newly revived by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The United Nations spelled out the “best possible result” in 1947: Palestine – then a British mandate – was to be partitioned into two states of approximately equal size. Israel accepted this, but the Palestinians did not, so the Palestinian state was never established. In successive wars, Israel seized all the land allocated to Palestine, mainly the West Bank of the Jordan River and Gaza, now swarming with millions of Palestinian refugees.

Since the Oslo Accords of 1993, which envisaged a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza, “facts on the ground” have whittled down the putative Palestinian state still further. Part of the West Bank has been annexed outright by Israel or seized by Israeli settlers. The Palestinian Authority has been given limited autonomy over 25% of it, in non-contiguous parcels. 

Kerry’s formidable task is to get the Palestinians to accept a smaller state than they want and the Israelis to accept a smaller state than they have. But, with the security situation in the “occupied territories” under control, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government is content with the status quo. So Kerry’s blandishments are directed toward the Palestinians. His strategy seems to be to bribe them with $4 billion to accept a (temporary) “bantustan” solution (so named for the nominally autonomous states to which South Africa’s apartheid regime confined most of the country’s black majority).

It just might work. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas might be attracted by the money if it is accompanied by the trappings and symbols of statehood. At 78, he is a president in urgent need of a state. The Netanyahu government, too, might conceivably agree to a Palestinian “entity” on 75% of the West Bank, provided that Israel remained in overall control.

Kerry’s initiative would have a greater chance of success were more money on the table. One way to increase it would be to convert the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” (to Israeli lands from which they fled in 1947-1948) into a right to compensation. At the failed Camp David summit in 2000, Israeli negotiators suggested a $30 billion international fund that would make payments to genuine refugees. By revisiting the Israeli offer, Kerry could neatly combine economic stimulus with fulfillment of a key Palestinian demand. 

Nevertheless, even with the extra cash, neither side would be likely to accept such a simulacrum of the two-state solution. Although such a deal might satisfy Israel’s security needs, it would mean abandoning the Greater Israel project championed by hardline Zionists and religious extremists. And, although Abbas might be tempted by cosmetic changes to the status quo, most Palestinians probably would reject them as fraudulent.

A peace settlement should not be impossible. There would need to be agreement on the amount of territory reserved for the Palestinian state. Since no Israeli government would surrender the West Bank border areas that have the thickest settlements, land in Israel would need to be offered as compensation. Jerusalem would have to be divided, with UN administration of holy sites, and an agreement would be needed to police the porous frontier with Jordan. 

But there is little chance that such an agreement will emerge from the current round of talks. Most Israelis – certainly the current government – are convinced that Palestinians must be prevented by force from killing Jews. “How do we resolve the contradiction between our extreme morality and our blatantly immoral circumstances?” asks the writer Uri Avnery. “Simple: we go into denial.”

The desire for peace is more urgent in Ramallah than in Tel Aviv. But Abbas has his own intransigents in the form of Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2006, and whose commitment to violence is a mirror image of Netanyahu’s “peace through strength.” A genuine two-state solution thus requires a change of heart – and leadership – on both sides. 

On the Israeli side, this means a less paranoid view of the Palestinians, coupled with a recognition that Israel’s behavior runs contrary to modern ethics. Past conquest cannot be a legitimate basis for current rule. That is why all civilized countries have given up the claim to rule by force.

The Palestinian side, for its part, must accept that Israel is here to stay, and that huge benefits can be reaped from economic cooperation. 

Both sides need political leaders willing to take real risks for peace, including the risk of being killed. After all, ordinary soldiers take this risk, so why should political leaders – who can do much greater good or ill – be immune to it?

But external pressure may create new facts. Hamas has always believed that only violence can achieve a genuine Palestinian state, so the Israelis must fear a third intifada if Abbas cannot deliver. Such a popular uprising would be brutally suppressed, strengthening both sides’ intransigents in the short run and undermining America’s automatic support for Israel in the long term. 

Pressure for change may also come from unfolding events in the Middle East, with regional turmoil bound to affect the West Bank and Gaza. Increasingly unstable Arab neighbors might give the Israelis a motive to make peace in a small area and thereby hold at bay the chaos outside.

The likeliest outcome of the current flurry of diplomacy will be a fudge, which both sides will present as the “best result possible.” There will be another roadmap to final two-state status, with some timetable for Palestinian statehood, conditional on Hamas’s renunciation of violence. The Israelis will claim to have conceded nothing essential; Abbas’s Fatah will claim to have secured a road paved with gold. And the peace process will creep forward – more process than peace – until it encounters the next roadblock.

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