John Kerry once lost the opportunity to become President of the United States. As a war hero, he was derailed of that goal by an uneducated bully whose closest participation in war was to dress as a war pilot in a Halloween costume. As Secretary of State, Kerry has now the uniquely difficult opportunity to contribute to peace in the Middle East.
At his confirmation hearing Kerry said, “We need to find a way forward, and I happen to believe that if we can’t be successful, the door, window… to the possibility of a two-state solution could shut – and that would be disastrous for all concerned.” He wasn’t too clear about how to confront this unique challenge, saying that he didn’t want to prejudice any new effort by being too explicit about what he would do.
In a recent interview with Roger Cohen from The New York Times, Amos Oz, the noted Israeli novelist, aptly characterized both positions. “Building settlements in occupied territories was the single most grave error and sin in the history of modern Zionism, because it was based on a refusal to accept the single fact that we are not alone in this country,” he said. And added, “The Palestinians for decades also refused the fact that they are not alone in this country. Now, with clenched teeth, both sides have recognized this reality and that is a good basis.”
Unlike Hillary Clinton, who, after being confirmed as Secretary of State chose to visit Asia, John Kerry is expected to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in February. As he stated, “I want to emphasize we are not turning away from anywhere else. Whatever we do in Asia should not come, and I hope will not come, at the expense of relationships in Europe or in the Middle East or elsewhere. It can’t.”
This is the right time to give some credibility to that so much abused notion of “Middle East peace process.” The possibility that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may tap Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid party, to be his next foreign minister could dramatically change the status of the negotiations. The Yesh Atid party favors a two-state solution.
What is now required is a new kind of thinking that avoids the pitfalls that have hindered previous efforts. As Kerry himself acknowledged during his confirmation hearings, “Perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion to have a different track than we have been on over the last couple of years.”
Talks could restart now after they broke down in 2010 within weeks of resuming. Many believe that for them to succeed now, rather than a grandiose approach, a more circumspect, gradual approach is needed, considering how far apart are both sides in conflict.
To overcome the atmosphere of distrust, this gradual approach could start almost immediately with an exchange of artists, technical personnel and doctors between both sides, something that is taking place now in a very limited way. This can contribute to the creation of an atmosphere conducive to peace.
Perhaps no other conflict in recent history has had as many missed opportunities as the Middle East conflict. And both sides are to blame, since at one time or another they both showed scant interest in making the necessary and difficult compromises to achieve real progress.
“Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” stated in 1973 Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister, after the Geneva Peace Conference with Arab countries. By adopting an assertive and balanced stand on the conflict, one that can be agreeable to both parties, John Kerry’s determination and patriotism can prove him wrong.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.