Kerry Hints at One Last Mideast Peace Push Before Obama Term Ends

By Patrick Goodenough | November 3, 2016 | 4:14 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas speak to reporters after a meeting in Ramallah on Sunday, June 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry has hinted that he may be involved in one final push on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, amid growing speculation – and concern among Israel supporters – that President Obama may use the period between next week’s election and the end of his administration to break the deadlock.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that according to administration sources, “the White House has asked the State Department to develop an options menu for the president’s final weeks.”

It said the possibilities could include supporting – or not vetoing – a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements; or a resolution formally recognizing a Palestinian state, or setting “parameters” for a final settlement of the long dispute.

Others, including Middle East Forum director Gregg Roman, have suggested there may be a big speech laying out the “parameters” for a peace deal. (President Clinton attempted a similar initiative in the closing weeks of his presidency, to little avail.)

A little-noticed sentence by Kerry during an event in London on Monday suggests that he may be the one to lead a last push.

Speaking after receiving an award for the Iran nuclear deal, Kerry said it was his view that the Arab world was more ready now than “at any time previously” to be part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

“And I believe that if leaders in Israel are prepared to try to move forward in a genuine way, there is a new discussion that could be had and new opportunities to try to have a breakthrough that was unachievable a couple of years ago,” he said.

“And we will see. I may speak out on this in the next weeks, months, or over the year – hard to say,” Kerry added. “But people need to recognize that there is something different in the Middle East that is available to people now and we should not lose that opportunity.”

Asked Wednesday about concerns in Israel that the administration was planning some kind of final effort in its final months, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “I don’t think it would be useful to talk about internal discussions that we’re having.”

When asked whether there were such internal conversations underway, he said that it “shouldn’t surprise anybody that, as an administration, that we routinely talk about the situation in the Middle East and in Israel, and that, obviously, is something I think you know Secretary Kerry’s very focused on.”

“So of course we have discussions about this. But I don’t want to get ahead of those discussions.”

During both Obama terms – but especially the early period of Kerry’s tenure at the State Department – the administration tried, but failed, to advance the peace process.

The last serious push to reach a final status agreement was spearheaded by Kerry over a nine-month period, but collapsed in April 2014.

Since then, the Iran nuclear deal, Syrian civil war and challenge posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) has largely diverted U.S. and world attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian issue – despite efforts by Palestinian leaders to win it back through initiatives at the U.N. or inciting violent attacks on the ground.

As a result, the State Department’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has amounted to little more than periodic – and increasingly hard-hitting – statements condemning Israeli settlement activity in areas claimed by the Palestinians.

That could change in the period between November and January, in the view of a growing number of Mideast experts and observers.

Tying his successor’s hands

Late last month Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in a Washington Post op-ed urged Obama to act before he leaves office, saying that he “has the opportunity not to be remembered as the U.S. president who allowed the two-state solution to disappear.”

It has been longstanding U.S. policy that a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians must be negotiated between the parties and cannot be imposed from outside – especially by the U.N., which has repeatedly shown itself incapable of neutrality in the dispute.

The administration vetoed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in 2011, and the same year a veto threat stymied Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to win full member-state status for “Palestine.”

But on October 5, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. position on actions taken at the U.N. had not changed, before adding, “But we’re going to carefully consider our future engagement, if and when we reach that point, and determine how to most effectively pursue and advance the objective that we all at least claim to share, which is that of achieving a negotiated two-state solution.”

No fewer than 88 U.S. senators urged Obama in a bipartisan letter in September to maintain its policy “and make it clear that you will veto any one-sided UNSC resolution that may be offered in the coming months.”

“Any such resolution, whether focused on settlements or other final status issues, will ultimately make it more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the conflict,” they wrote.

Any shift by the Obama administration, pro-Israel commentators say, would be a grievous error – and tie his successor’s hands.

“It would be wrong — and undemocratic — for Obama to unilaterally reverse decades of U.S. foreign policy during the lame duck period,” retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote in an article for the Gatestone Institute.

“The period between the election and the inauguration is the only time a president can act without the checks and balances of American democracy,” he said. “He should not take action that would tie the hands of his successor.”

Foundation for Defense of Democracies president Clifford May in a recent op-ed argued that this was particularly pertinent in the event Hillary Clinton wins the election.

“If Donald Trump should be elected president, Mr. Obama will do what he can to limit his policy choices on a range of issues. I get that,” May wrote. “But if Hillary Clinton is the next occupant of the White House, he’ll be doing his former secretary of state an enormous disservice by tying her hands.”

“What’s more, the perception will be widespread that she agrees with Mr. Obama’s approach – or lacks the strength to dissuade him,” he said. As a result, Israelis will view Clinton as “the third term of a president who has helped make the Middle East a bloodier place and is all too eager to put their lives on the line in pursuit of the commodity he now seems to prize most: a legacy.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow