Kerry made a mistake, but maybe it can still be fixed
US Secretary of State John Kerry realized long ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emphasis on recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation state by the Palestinians was due to his belief that President Mahmoud Abbas would not be able to comply with this demand. He speculated that Netanyahu would rather blame the Palestinians for the failure of talks than sign a final agreement rife with compromise, and that the strategy represents an update on Netanyahu's 1996 mantra of "if they give - they shall receive."
Even then Netanyahu donned the garments of a peacemaker: all he asked, after all, was that the Palestinians fulfill their part of the bargain. He appointed himself their judge, decided they failed to deliver on their promises, and absolved himself from making good on the interim agreement.
But when Kerry quit his post as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become Secretary of State, having then decided to tackle head on the longest-standing post-World War II conflict, he adopted a tactic tailor-made for the Israeli prime minister.
Instead of driving the parties toward a set of compromises, in the knowledge that whoever serves as the Israeli is the pivot to resolving the conflict, he sought to understand what was really important to Netanyahu. He stumbled on the following two earth shattering realizations: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation state and, in the interests of security, Israeli control over the West Bank along the Jordan River. He then concluded that if he could provide positive answers to both demands during the bilateral talks between himself and Netanyahu, the Israeli leader will go softly on other key issues, such as the border between Israel and the future Palestinian state, East Jerusalem as the capital of that state, and a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
And that was his big mistake. He made a huge effort to comply with Netanyahu's security demands and accepted the demand to put to paper the issue of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state, without having to hold in-depth negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas on these two issues. After being introduced to the US government program, formulated by a team of 160 people, the Israeli side's response was very low-key: the program had its "positives," but was not a plan with which they could really live.
When Kerry finally unveiled the plan before the Palestinians, they did not believe their eyes, especially because after 10 years of Israeli military presence on the banks of the River Jordan (to provide protection against Jordan ? Iraq?), it was determined that the Israeli military would not withdraw, but rather a decision will be taken on the issue in the fullness of time, depending on the circumstances. And who will decide if circumstances permit a withdrawal? While it isn't spelled out in the proposal, it is clear as can be that it would be Israel.
As for the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state - it had never been in any doubt, and was pretty much taken for granted. It was Netanyahu who affixed a question mark to the issue. Once he placed the matter so high on the agenda, and the Arab countries (especially Egypt, under former President Hosni Mubarak) rejected it out of hand, Abbas felt he could not respond to the Israeli demand, although the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and Yasser Arafat both recognized Israel as such.
Thus the US repeated a familiar American error: the special relationship with Israel compels it to sit down for talks first with Israel; then, whatever is hashed out is shattered when the Palestinians, who were not party to the secret contacts, find the results untenable. It was thus at the Camp David summit in 2000, and in 2009, when the Obama administration and Netanyahu government's agreed to a partial freeze on settlement construction. The Palestinians left out of the agreement, and never returned to the negotiating table at the end of that brief round of talks.
It may be too late. Maybe reaching a preliminary agreement by April is an impossibility. Instead of banging heads against the wall and announcing the talks have failed, it is better to reach an agreement on limiting settlement construction and the release of Palestinian prisoners, in order to allow the continuation of the negotiations until the end of 2014. But in the next round of negotiations, Kerry will have to work vis–à–vis both Israel and the Palestinians, to our own benefit.
Yossi Beilin is president of the business consulting firm Beilink. In the past he served as a minister in three Israeli governments and as a Member of Knesset for Labor and Meretz. He was one of the pioneers of the Oslo Accords, the Geneva Initiative and Birthright.