Go to the people
First, my congratulations and condolences to John Kerry for being nominated to be our next secretary of state. There is no one better for the job today and no worse job to have today. It is no accident that we’ve started measuring our secretaries of state more by miles traveled than milestones achieved. It is bloody hard to do big diplomacy anymore.
Why? Well, as secretary of state today you get to deal with Vladimir Putin, who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. That is, even though Russia’s economy is hugely corrupt and nowhere nearly as innovative as it should be, Putin sits atop a huge reserve of oil and gas that makes him think he’s a genius and doesn’t need to listen to anyone. When recently confronted with his regime’s bad behavior, his first instinct was to block U.S. parents from adopting Russian orphans, even though so many of them badly need homes. If there were an anti-Nobel Peace Prize, Putin would win hands down.
When Putin isn’t available to stiff us, China, to whom we owe a gazillion dollars, is ready to stand in. Those two are the real nations, where there’s at least someone to answer the phone — and hang up on us. Elsewhere, the secretary of state gets to deal with failed or failing states, like Mali, Algeria, Afghanistan and Libya, whose governments cannot deliver for their people, let alone for us. If he is looking for a break, Kerry could always call on our longtime ally Egypt, whose president, Mohammed Morsi, we find out, in 2010 described Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs.” Who knew?
So what’s a secretary of state to do? I’d suggest trying something radically new: creating the conditions for diplomacy where they do not now exist by going around leaders and directly to the people. And I’d start with Iran, Israel and Palestine. We live in an age of social networks in which every leader outside of North Korea is now forced to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens. There’s no more just top-down. People everywhere are finding their voices, and leaders are terrified. We need to turn this to our advantage to gain leverage in diplomacy.
Let’s break all the rules.
Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Barack Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.
On Israel-Palestine, the secretary of state should publicly offer President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority the following: The U.S. would recognize the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as the independent state of Palestine on the provisional basis of the June 4, 1967, lines, support its full U.N. membership and send an ambassador to Ramallah, on the condition that Palestinians accept the principle of “two states for two peoples” — an Arab state and a Jewish state in line with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 — and agree that permanent borders, security and land swaps would be negotiated directly with Israel. The status of the refugees would be negotiated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents all Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine. Gaza, now a de facto statelet, would be recognized as part of Palestine only when its government recognizes Israel, renounces violence and rejoins the West Bank.
Why do this? Because there will be no Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough unless the silent majorities on both sides know they have a partner — that Palestinians have embraced two states for two peoples and that Israelis have embraced Palestinian statehood. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Abbas have shown a real commitment to nurture these preconditions for peace, and our secret diplomacy with both only plays into their hands. We need to blow this charade wide open by trying to publicly show Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians that they really do have options that their leaders don’t want them to see. (Israel’s election Tuesday showed that the peace camp in Israel is still alive and significant.) It may not work. The leaders may still block it or the people may not be interested. But we need to start behaving like a superpower and forcing a moment of truth. Our hands are full now, and we can’t waste four more years with allies (or enemies) who may be fooling us.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.