After three strikes swinging for home runs in the Middle East, it’s time for the United States to play small ball and hit some singles, analyst David Makovsky argues.

“Whenever it’s all or nothing in the Middle East, it tends to be nothing,” said Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute and the director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

He spoke to more than 1,000 people on a conference call organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on Thursday, Dec. 29, the day after Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a 70-minute speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry spent most of his speech defending the U.S. abstention Dec. 23 on U.N. Resolution 2334, which had the support of the other 14 members of the U.N. Security Council. That resolution, the first one critical of Israel that the Obama administration has allowed to pass the Security Council, reiterates the U.N. view that Israeli settlements are “a flagrant violation under international law,” including housing built in East Jerusalem.

Most of the operative clauses of the resolution focus on the settlements as a major obstacle to a two-state solution. The resolution calls on Israel to halt and reverse settlement activity, rejects any changes to Israel’s borders as they existed before the Six-Day War in 1967 without a negotiated agreement, urges other nations to distinguish between Israel and the territories occupied since 1967 (as the European Union does with its labeling of imports), and asks for a report from the U.N. secretary-general every three months on actions in response to the resolution.

Kerry and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, argued that the United States had a moral obligation not to veto the resolution because of the threat settlements pose to the hope for a two-state solution, even though they oppose the use of the United Nations to impose a peace deal. They noted that the resolution calls for an end to incitement to violence and a condemnation of terrorism, although those clauses don’t name the Palestinians or the Palestinian Authority.

Regardless of the role the United States played in the creation of Resolution 2334, Makovsky said the United States failed to use the “enormous negotiating leverage” it held based on the threat of its veto. He said the United States could have gotten much more balance in the measure, such as affirmation that Israel is a Jewish state.

Kerry offered support for that position in his speech Dec. 28, in which he laid out six principles for a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians:

  • Provide for secure, defensible, recognized borders that are based on the pre-1967 lines with negotiated land swaps and result in a contiguous Palestine.
  • Establish two states for two peoples with mutual recognition and full rights for all citizens. Kerry specified that Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state and that the rights of Israeli Arabs must be protected.
  • Provide a just resolution for Palestinian refugees, including compensation for losses, new homes and acknowledgment of their suffering. Kerry did not use the phrase “right of return” but did say the refugee resolution must respect Israel’s fundamental character as Jewish and democratic.
  • Establish Jerusalem as the capital of both states while maintaining the religious status quo.
  • Ensure Israel’s security while ending the occupation and establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state.
  • End the conflict and all outstanding claims between Israel and the rest of the Middle East, launching an era of normal relations and peaceful coexistence.

Makovsky, who worked with Kerry during his 2013-14 effort to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, said Kerry’s principles align with the ideas laid out by Presidents Bill Clinton in 2000, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2011.

Kerry’s speech marked the first time a major U.S. official specified that Jerusalem should be the capital for two nations, Makovsky said, and the secretary of state took a middle ground on refugees by saying that their resolution could not undermine the principle of two states for two peoples. Other minor differences involved terminology or emphasis rather than real substance.

The timing of Kerry’s speech creates some drama with a peace conference scheduled for Jan. 15 in Paris, Makovsky said. Israel is not participating in that gathering, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has urged the United States to skip it as well.

Although Kerry said the United States remains opposed to a solution being forced on the two sides by the United Nations, there are concerns that the U.N. Security Council will try to pass a resolution based on Kerry’s six principles, with the endorsement of the Paris conference, before Obama leaves office Jan. 20.

It might have made more sense for Kerry to deliver such a speech in the spring of 2014 after PA President Mahmoud Abbas refused to respond to a proposal from the secretary of state, but other world events, such as the fighting in Ukraine and the rise of Islamic State, pushed aside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Makovsky said.

“I do think he cares deeply about this,” Makovsky said about Kerry. “I think it was a noble effort to try to hit a home run.”

But he said that after the United States failed to hit that home run of a final agreement in the closing days of the Clinton administration, through the efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2007-08, and under Kerry, it might be wise to try incremental steps. Right now, because of a lack of trust and leadership, Makovsky said, a final agreement isn’t possible.

He presented examples of hitting singles that would benefit Israel and the Palestinians.

On settlements, he said the United States and Israel should take a more nuanced view that differentiates between building in the settlement blocs that are widely expected to become part of Israel under the land swaps of a final deal and those settlements built east of the separation barrier in the West Bank.

Israel could then offer not to build east of the barrier, leaving 92 percent of the West Bank off-limits to settlers.

In return, the Palestinians could dismantle the foundation that makes payments to the families of terrorists.

Center for Israel Education President Ken Stein asked Makovsky to project the effects of the U.N. resolution and the Kerry speech in six months — with June bringing the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the statutory deadline for President Donald Trump to proceed with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or to sign a six-month waiver of that shift.

There is a historical injustice in refusing to put the embassy where the Israeli government is based, and the embassy would end up in Jerusalem under a final agreement, Makovsky said. “But the Mideast isn’t always focused on rationality.”