As the US Secretary of State's hopes of brokering a peace deal between Israel and Palestine falter, we ask if he was ever on the right pathby Tom Phillips / April 9, 2014 / Leave a comment
John Kerry has hinted that Israel is to blame for the deadlocked Middle East peace process
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has faltered in his attempt to bring about a US-brokered peace in the Middle East. In remarks made yesterday to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry suggested that he holds Israel primarily responsible for the apparent failure of his eight-month attempt to broker a “framework for negotiations,” as the basis for a determined push for a final deal in the year ahead.
Kerry singled out Israel’s failure to release further prisoners, and the subsequent announcement of yet more settlement construction in East Jerusalem, as prompting the Palestinian request to sign 15 international conventions. Today’s announcement that, in response, the Israelis will halt cooperation with Palestinian entities suggests that the blame game—and the downward spiral—is far from over. As Kerry’s hopes of progress fade, it is time to ask if he was ever on the right path.
Even those who, like myself, had reluctantly concluded that a two-state solution was no longer possible (as I wrote in Prospect in August 2012), were impressed by the evidence of Kerry’s commitment to this issue, despite criticism that other more pressing problems in the region and elsewhere should have been his priority. He saw, correctly, that this remains the frontline of Islamic perceptions of western double standards. And that this is a human tragedy—for both Israelis and Palestinians—which has gone on too long.
So, where did Kerry go wrong? His key failure was to ignore the need to invite the two sides to negotiate on the basis of clearly laid-out American parameters. Yes, there would have been a risk that the process would never have started, given the possibility that the current Israeli government would have refused to entertain anything resembling what Clinton put on the table in December 2000, or the Geneva Initiative, or the Olmert 2008 offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But any credible two-state solution will have to be based on something resembling these templates, and to imagine that it would be possible to fashion a “framework for negotiations” which both sides would sign up to was an even more challenging ask.
Kerry allowed himself to be drawn too closely towards Israeli positions on the key issues of Jerusalem and security in the Jordan Valley, and an initial insistence of Palestinian recognition of a “Jewish state.” He was then unable to return to more central ground when an increasingly exposed Abbas dug in and said no.
Yes, Abbas could have played the Jewish state issue more skilfully, perhaps shrugging it off with a reference to the aspirational goal of a Jewish and an Arab state expressed in the UN General Assembly “partition” resolution 181 of 1947. He could have included caveats about the rights of non-Jewish minorities in Israel and the prior need to address the Palestinian refugee issue, underpinned by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s recognition of the right of Israel to exist in peace and security under the 1993 Oslo Accords. But however much Palestinian tactics can be faulted, the underlying reality remains that this is a conflict in which the two sides are not equally matched.
As the occupying power, Israel is in possession of all the critical assets on the ground, with strong military and intelligence services, a robust economy, and the bottom line support of what is still the most powerful country in the world. However genuine the security concerns felt by many Israelis, these have for too long been used as a reason to avoid having to make the tough choices between alternative visions of Israel’s future which would expose the fault-lines in their own society, or as a justification for occupation. And to duck the argument that the main reason Israel needs a two-state solution is for its own sake—its own values, and to achieve the Zionist dream of anything resembling a “Jewish state.”
The Secretary of State also failed to “operationalise” the potential for greater regional support for a peace process. True, he consulted key Arab League leaders, which led to an important statement from the league’s Follow-up Committee confirming that the Arab Peace Initiative—the comprehensive peace plan adopted at the 2002 Arab League Summit—was not simplistically prescriptive and could accept mutually agreed adjustments to the 1967 line. But there was no American attempt to bring that potential positive into the negotiations. Kerry’s tight control of the process also inhibited his ability to define what the Initiative could mean in the post-Arab Spring world—potentially making explicit the alliance between Israel and those with a shared interest in pushing back against Iran and its allies, and al Qaeda-style Sunni fundamentalism. As a result there was a lack of pressure from the growing number of Israelis who understand the potential benefits of the API, on a right-wing government which—like every Israeli government since 2002—has failed to respond formally to the Arab offer.
With both the Israelis and the Palestinians now launching the familiar barrage of mutual threats and recriminations, it is no surprise that Kerry also told the Senate Committee that while American efforts would continue, in the end it was down to the parties themselves to decide if they wanted peace. In reality, Washington needs that peace almost as much as the parties themselves—the US is currently trapped in its position as the only external player with the clout to broker a deal. But with the heavy in-tray created by events elsewhere showing no sign of easing as the clock ticks towards the end of the Obama administration, there seems little prospect that that the re-evaluation of the efforts now being suggested by Kerry will reach the right conclusions about the US’s own role.
Kerry was, and is, right that a two-state solution would have been the only way to meet the national aspirations of the two parties involved. But I cannot imagine any American government being able to press the Israelis to take the steps that are ultimately in their interest. Nor can I imagine any Israeli government—and certainly not the current one—being able to rein in the settler movement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And it is equally hard to conceive that any Palestinian leadership would have the authority to compromise on the right of return for refugees, without which no Israeli would support a peace deal, unless perhaps the deal on East Jerusalem were an optimum one from the Palestinian point of view, and had the support of the Arab world.
So it is time to consider the implications of the inevitable conclusion that a two-state solution is now unlikely, despite the lack of a viable alternative other than continued conflict. Neither side looks ready for a one-state model. But the reality on the ground and continuing settler activity will take the argument in that direction, however much all the players might prefer to cling to the failed two–state mantra of the past. And only if it honestly confronts that reality might Israel come to terms with the tough decisions it would have to take were all Kerry’s efforts not to have been in vain.