Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaking before a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. Kerry has said that finding peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not "mission impossible." (Brendan Smialowski/AP)

In the next few months we will find out whether John Kerry’s energetic push to settle the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has borne fruit. Israel does not seem keen on the talks; its minister of defense has described Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic,” adding that it would be best if the secretary “won his Nobel [prize] and left us alone.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ever indignant about anti-Israeli propaganda in the Palestinian media, has rejected a proposed joint committee meant to reduce incitement.

The Palestinians are skeptical as well: President Mahmoud Abbas recently announced that recognizing Israel as a Jewish State was “out of the question.” And, echoing a statement by Netanyahu, he proclaimed that Secretary Kerry “has the right to do whatever he wants… and we [the Palestinians] have the right to say whatever we want.”

Given the bleak record of past attempts, the difficulty of the questions at stake and the mistrust between the parties (not to speak of the internal tensions afflicting each), another failure is far more likely than a breakthrough. The Israelis, at least, don’t sound terribly worried about the negotiations faltering. Their economic prosperity, military might and, more than anything, the unconditional backing of the United States have convinced them that the status quo is tenable indefinitely.

Rebuffing Secretary Kerry will expedite a process of American disengagement that Israel, if it is to survive in any recognizable form, cannot afford.

But it’s not. Suppose Kerry fails. How long can Israel count on the status quo to last? According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook, the United States is projected to produce more oil than Saudi Arabia by the end of the decade. By 2030 the U.S. will become energy independent. The economic equation that dictated the centrality of the Middle East throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st is changing. The area is losing its ability to generate a massive economic crisis in North America and, as it does, the Americans are becoming less concerned about what happens there. The ceding of the stage to Russia in the recent Syrian crisis and America’s indifference about upheavals in Egypt suggest that this process is already underway.

With a reduction in the importance of Mideast oil, Israel, as a Western outpost in an oil rich region, is beginning to matter less. If current trends continue, it could find itself without the backing of its traditional ally. What would it do then? Since the threats Israel faces are unlikely to subside (the continued rise of Iran and its client militia Hezbollah, the instability in neighboring Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the possibility of a revolution in minority-ruled Jordan, the infiltration of Al Qaeda affiliates into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, to name a few), it would need new friends. An alliance with Saudi Arabia could prove attractive. The Jewish state would also have to seek backing from a new super power. The leading candidate would be a resurgent Russia, which has, of late, been showing a great deal of interest in Middle Eastern politics. The Chinese, who are set to become the primary consumers of Persian Gulf oil, are also likely to offer patronage in exchange for technology sharing.

But if Israel formed friendships with Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, it would become harder for Israel to maintain its self-understanding as the only democracy in the region. You don’t get to call yourself a democracy when your close friends persecute homosexuals, censor the internet, hound dissidents and refuse to allow women to leave the house unaccompanied (this on top of maintaining a 47-year occupation of the Palestinians and their lands). With the development of such ties, Israel would move further and further out of the camp of western states. It would, gradually, cease to be itself.

Here, then, is a good reason to root for Kerry. A deal with the Palestinians, achieved through American mediation, will bind the U.S. to Israel — legally, politically and morally, for the next few decades. The Americans would have to finance much of the agreement, supply guarantees for its implementation, and help police its terms. In fact, Israel should not agree to a settlement that does not involve long-term, intensive American involvement in monitoring and implementation. Such continued American commitment would be a remarkable “side effect” of making peace with the Palestinians, an outcome equal in importance, perhaps, to the actual resolution of the conflict.

Rebuffing Secretary Kerry will expedite a process of American disengagement that Israel, if it is to survive in any recognizable form, cannot afford. And embracing his initiative will slow down this process indefinitely. If the Israelis know what’s good for them, they should hope that Kerry gets his Nobel Peace Prize for sticking around and seeing things through.


Tags: John Kerry, Middle East

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • maraith

    It’s time for Israel to become fully independent. That means we don’t give them billions of dollars every year. And they don’t have to kiss U.S. butt.

  • cocoon

    The goal of Kerry’s policy is to further weaken US and Israel in the Mid East and isolate Israel. Palestinians still won’t recognize Israeli State and Israel is the problem? How does Israel negotiate with an organization which denies its existence?
    It is absurd.

    •,70820/ Incurable Ennui

      Your comment overlooks the fact that both sides are being completely bull-headed and unwilling to compromise. Anybody who doesn’t have a dog in the fight can see how sadly ironic this is, and how hypocritical both sides are. The people being represented by leaders on both sides are the losers in this.

      • cocoon

        My comment meant to suggest the US has exerted tremendous resources and time with 2 groups who were not going to advance in an agreement when their positions have been so far apart historically. Nothing had changed except US focus and pressure.
        Ultimately the US looks weak when it cannot make an agreement happen and it also puts it’s ally Israel in a negative position with the world who threatens sanctions.
        If you have negotiated anything you will understand this was not a win-win from the start but a lose-lose proposition.

        • Americangirl

          The Kerry efforts have NOT put Israel in a “negative position with a world who threatens sanctions”. Israel has been protected by the US veto power in the UN from sanctions for decades. What Israel now is threatened by is boycotts – both from the EU and from people objecting to a nearly 50 year long occupation. Kerry has – in fact – pushed the EU to give the peace efforts a chance by not implementing the the boycott while they are ongoing.

          If Israel and Palestine fail to make peace, the US has no power to prevent a boycott of Israeli products. It is perfectly legal for Americans to join the BDS movement, that is currently led mostly by young American Jews. That movement started long before Secretary Kerry’s efforts. In addition, it is likely that with no chance of negotiated resolution, it would be hard for the US to convince the EU that their boycott is wrong. All the US government could do is be the one important vote against sanctions at the UN.

          • cocoon

            Iran is the red hot button in the Middle East which now has gained approved enrichment of uranium, which 6 months ago nobody agreed they should have.
            Your Secretary if State is weakening both US and our ally Israel over these past few months in this no-win showmanship after speeding the ability of Iran to make a nuclear missile/bomb.
            You suggest peace is negotiable when an organization demands a nation give up land and rights while refusing to acknowledge that nations right to exist.
            That, slight issue, (the right of a nation to exist) once agreed upon would allow US to negotiate peace. Until then it is a waste of time, weakens US diplomacy and puts our ally in a dangerous position.

  • David Kimball

    Our concern in the Middle East should not be based on our oil dependency. I consider that an insult when this writer says that oil is our main concern. There are moral issues at stake here and I, for one, feel that the moral imperative is for Israel to cease imposing an Apartheid situation on the refugees.

  • Richard Goodkin

    The author makes a basic miscalculation. The US has had to walk on egg shells in the Mideast for far too long precisely because we can’t go too far to anger Saudi Arabia and other big oil producers there. Once we become (relatively) energy independent then we don’t have to worry about our dependence on our ‘friends’ in Saudi Arabia (who spawned nearly all of the 9/11 terrorists). We can tell SA, Iraq, Kuwait, etc. to peddle their oil to China, Japan and India and we can do what we should do, which is to support our only friend/ally in the Mideast, the only democracy in the Mideast and the only country in the region that is not mired in the 13th century.

  • limbodog

    Hope for what? When neither side’s leadership actually wants a peaceful agreement, what hope is there?