Editorial Board

The Opportunity Costs of John Kerry’s Mideast Diplomacy

Six months is not a long time when measured against the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which goes back generations. It is considerably longer when measured in the context of the Iranian nuclear program, which could achieve the capacity to produce undetected a bomb’s worth of fissile material in only twice that time.

So the criticism that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent too much time -- six months, to be precise -- in shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians is both churlish and well-taken. His efforts have resulted in the Israelis and Palestinians tentatively agreeing to sit down for new peace talks after a lapse of almost three years. Working to bring about a settlement is a worthwhile investment of U.S. time and energy -- but not if it comes at the expense of a more urgent priority, which is peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.

The obstacles to an Israel-Palestinian peace agreement are well-known and long-standing, and they haven’t lessened with time. That said, the payoff for success would be huge. An agreement would liberate the Palestinians from the yoke of occupation, improve Israel’s safety, deprive extremists worldwide of an excuse for anti-Semitic and anti-American violence, demonstrate the value of U.S. diplomacy, and, not coincidentally, secure a legacy for Kerry.

As other Mideast peace efforts have proved, however, brokering talks requires an enormous investment of U.S. resources. The U.S. will need to keep a close accounting of opportunity costs, especially once the new Iranian president is installed in August, presenting U.S. diplomats with a chance to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program through negotiations.

Positive Signs

Kerry’s initiative offers two elements that may give it an advantage over the many previous failed efforts. He has put together an economic investment package of about $4 billion for the Palestinians, which may expand their constituency for peace. And he has appointed a U.S. team to assess what security measures Israel would need if a Palestinian state were created. (Palestinian negotiators probably would assign more credibility to a U.S. appraisal than an Israeli one.)

And yet. Kerry’s effort comes at a time when the kind of leadership typically associated with peacemaking appears to be lacking on both sides. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have given no indication that they are any more willing to make the concessions necessary for a permanent peace agreement than they were the last few times talks broke down.

Certainly, Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority is financially troubled, can Kerry is offering. And Netanyahu has an interest in talking, if not necessarily resolving anything. His government wants to win goodwill internationally and forestall actions like the European Union’s decision last week to prohibit the award of grants, prizes and financial instruments to Israeli entities operating in the West Bank. The Israelis also hope Abbas will drop his threat to seek war-crimes charges against Israeli officials at the International Criminal Court.

As this fragile process proceeds, the U.S. should be careful to husband its resources. It’s constructive for U.S. diplomats to get the parties to the table. But U.S. involvement must necessarily be guided by the willingness of the Israelis and Palestinians to compromise. Otherwise, the process may create false expectations and end up reinforcing the extremist view that Israeli-Palestinian peace is impossible. It may also complicate efforts to resolve the currently more consequential conflict with Iran.

Attack Fears

With the installation of advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment plants and construction of a heavy water reactor that can make plutonium, Iran is speeding toward a nuclear-weapons capacity. Netanyahu is again threatening that Israel may unilaterally launch military strikes against Iran’s facilities. That would be far from ideal, as an Israeli attack might set off a larger regional conflagration.

A negotiated deal with Iran is conceivable. President-elect Hassan Rohani demonstrated a conciliatory approach as a past nuclear negotiator. Having ruled that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may settle for the soft power of possessing limited nuclear-enrichment capabilities rather than the hard power of possessing actual bombs, if Iran is offered meaningful sanctions relief.

Given the enormous distrust between Iran and the U.S., getting to that kind of agreement would require a major U.S. government undertaking of tremendous delicacy. That should be a top priority -- and would be a worthy legacy -- for John Kerry.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.

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