5 inconvenient truths for John Kerry

Story highlights

  • John Kerry met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week
  • Aaron David Miller: Recent violence has been costly for Israelis and Palestinians

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)John Kerry, the Energizer Bunny of U.S. foreign policy, has once again taken on mission impossible. The U.S. secretary of state is back on the road trying to defuse several weeks of violent confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. He has already met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Germany, and is planning to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman this weekend.

Unlike the failed 2013-2014 peace initiative, Kerry's efforts might actually succeed in tamping down the rhetoric and the violence, at least as far as the explosive Jerusalem Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount issue is concerned. But the biggest challenge for the United States will be ensuring that there is no recurrence of violence and terror. And here, Kerry will confront a peace process not yet ready for prime time, leaders unwilling or able to make key decisions -- and a U.S. president who lacks the capacity and will to persuade them to do so.
Aaron David Miller
Five inconvenient truths will make lasting success elusive.
    Netanyahu: Father of a Palestinian state? Kerry met with Netanyahu for four hours in Berlin. There, the Israeli prime minister reaffirmed his commitment to restoring the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, provided his views on additional arrangements, but blasted Palestinian incitement.
    Of course, Netanyahu may well agree to a formal set of arrangements, together with King Hussein, and perhaps even Abbas, to calm the holy sites issue. But his real mood was likely reflected in his recent comments shackling the grand Mufti of Jerusalem with responsibility for putting the idea of the Holocaust in Hitler's head.
    Meanwhile, a mix of ideology and politics prevents him from negotiating the terms of a two-state solution the Palestinians might accept. For a start, Netanyahu mistrusts the Palestinians and fears that in a turbulent region, any type of independent Palestinian state would be a failed one, and would provide a security nightmare for Israel. That is why while Netanyahu would be happy to talk two states -- and participate in lengthy negotiations, without preconditions, that would run out the clock on the Obama administration -- he simply doesn't see himself as the prime minister whose legacy will be dividing Jerusalem, dismantling scores of settlements, and returning Israel to something close to the June 1967 borders.
    Abbas: I can't do this: If Netanyahu won't make historic concessions, Mahmoud Abbas can't. He, too, might be ready to play a role in calming matters, though his own rhetoric has stirred things up, too. But only if he could get something for doing so, perhaps a Palestinian role in a joint Jordanian and Israeli committee to help monitor arrangements over the Haram al-Sharif.
    But after a decade in power, Abbas has failed to deliver an end to Israel's occupation. Instead, he presides over a Palestinian national movement divided between Hamas and Fatah, one that resembles more a Noah's Ark where there are two of everything -- constitutions, statelets and security services.
    Further hampering any initiative is the fact that young Palestinians rising up in Jerusalem don't respect the aging Abbas. Indeed, in a poll conducted before the outbreak of the current round of violence, two-thirds of Palestinians polled wanted Abbas to resign.
    But even if they did respect Abbas, he can't control them, nor the 60% of the West Bank Israel still dominates, or Hamas' Gaza polity. Frankly, Abbas is stuck: He doesn't believe in a third intifada, won't dismantle the Palestinian Authority and force Israel to assume responsibility, and can't cut a deal with Netanyahu on terms that the Palestinians would accept.
    As a result of all this, we may well be watching the end of the Abbas era. And there's no obvious successor.
    Where are the Arabs? One of the major obstacles to a real peace process breakthrough is a region in turmoil. Iraq. Syria, Yemen, and Libya are in varying degrees of meltdown. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other Islamic groups are rising in Egypt and Sinai. And countering Iran, the Shia and the Sunni jihadis are greater priorities for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey than the peace process is.
    Yes, because of its traditional role in Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites, Jordan is engaged. But it's hard to imagine a peace process gaining legitimacy without solid Arab support, including the Saudis and the Egyptians -- particularly when it comes to resolving Jerusalem. With that in mind, one approach the administration might take with Netanyahu is to wrap the Israel-Palestinian issue in a broader approach to the Arab world, and to try to probe whether Israel would have greater flexibility on the Palestinian issue if it could be traded for public contacts and relations with key Arab states.
    Obama doesn't want a fight with Israel: Obama isn't running for re-election, so why not press Israel hard on the peace process? It's a good question, yet aside from some firm rhetoric and the poor chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu, the President has really never been tough with Israel. Israel resisted Obama's calls for a comprehensive settlements freeze in the West Bank, and has intensified building in Jerusalem without much cost or consequence.
    The reality is that there is less reason than ever for Obama to pick a fight. Obama's priority is selling the Iran deal, and so there's no point in creating additional tensions with Israel or Congress that might undermine that process. Plus, if the administration is to have any hope of avoiding an even bigger explosion on the Palestinian issue, it's important to work with Israel, not against it now.
    Domestically, the U.S. presidential campaign will create a backdrop of hopefuls trying to outbid one another in their support for Israel. A crisis with Netanyahu now would only strengthen the Republican case against Obama and risk undermining former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should she end up being the Democratic nominee.
    Will the President risk tensions with Israel by putting out his own peace plan, or perhaps seek to create one embodied in a U.N. Security Council resolution? That remains to be seen.
    The sustainable unsustainable status quo? Perversely, the very violence that triggered the Kerry mission remains the only reason to hope that some progress might be possible. The recent violence has been costly for both sides -- Abbas has been made to look irrelevant and is losing control, while for Israel, the conflict has demonstrated that the current status quo in Jerusalem -- Israel's capital -- may not be sustainable.
    That the worst violence and terror in a year is taking place in areas under Israel's complete control since 1967 and is led by young, unorganized Palestinians ready to die, is a deeply disturbing trend that augurs ill for the future. With that in mind, this round could be the tipping point that will spur all sides to constructive action.
    Or maybe not. Sadly, it is more likely that the Israelis and Palestinians will again decide that the risks of maintaining the status quo are less dangerous to them than the painful decisions required to change it by addressing the underlying causes of the conflict.
    If that remains the case, there is little John Kerry, Barack Obama -- or anyone else -- is going to be able to do about it.