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US Secretary of State John Kerry just completed the first round of direct talks between Israel and Palestinian negotiators in four years. They took place in Washington, DC and featured an introductory dinner that celebrated both Iftar and Shabbat.
By all accounts, the food was delicious. That’s what McClatchy Israel correspondent, Sheera Frenkel tweeted from the mouth of one of the Israeli team members:
Israeli diplo who took part in peace talks in DC just told me, “best part of that whole trip was the food. Nothing else digestible.”
We can assume he meant his delegation felt pressure to compromise on many of the issues which it finds non-starters – a shared Jerusalem, 1967 borders, and the Right of Return (of Palestinians displaced when the State of Israel was created in 1948).
There has been much ink spilled on the subject of these talks and whether they will fail or succeed. Liberal Zionists and their US supporters have created a soothing narrative that suggests both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will rise to the occasion and seize the moment to achieve a historic peace deal.
I side with those who believe there is so much fundamentally wrong with this series of negotiations which is supposed to last nine months, that there’s virtually no hope that they can succeed. The best that can be said so far is that both sides, after they left Washington, were remarkably sedate.
The usual posture is for each side to preen to the media about how their side scored points while the other side struck out. There has been remarkably little of that sort of sniping, which can only be a good sign.
A please-all solution?
The negotiations thus far seem to be a Rorschach Test in which any onlooker sees precisely what he wants. For example, Haaretz reports the US has sent separate letters to the Palestinian and Israeli sides. To the former, Kerry promised that the basis of the talks would be the 1967 borders. To the latter, he promised that the US views Israel is a Jewish state and should be recognised as such.
Each side fundamentally disagrees with the basis of these promises made to the other. Israel’s current government rejects not only withdrawing to the 1967 borders, but also the concept of land swaps, which have been a fundamental anchor of proposed peace agreements going back to the Clinton administration.
For their part, the Palestinians object to recognising Israel as a Jewish state. Given that fundamental divergence, on what basis do we have any hope that this process will succeed?
Before the talks began, Kerry had to break a major logjam holding back Palestinian participation. Bibi Netanyahu refused to publicly agree to a settlement freeze, one of Abbas’ fundamental conditions for joining the talks. To overcome this obstacle, Kerry pressured the Israelis for a sign of good faith. They latched on to the idea of a prisoner deal, by which Israel would free Palestinian prisoners. This would allow the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority to save face since it wasn’t going to get its major condition satisfied.
Israel agreed to free 100 Palestinian prisoners held in its jails for decades. The Israel Broadcasting Authority says the prisoner release will happen in four stages, the first of which would only happen during the second month of negotiations. A Palestinian source announced the first release of 26 detainees would occur on August 13. But a lot can happen in the months following.
The Israelis could easily refuse to follow through on the next stages should they feel the process isn’t going according to their expectations. I’d say a guarantee of the prisoner deal being completed may be slim. Let’s not forget, as well, that in past prisoner exchanges, Israel promptly rearrested whoever it wanted to return behind bars.
Dropping recognition at the UN
Another issue the Palestinians gave up to enter this round of negotiations is their campaign to win international recognition at the United Nations. The Guardian quotes a former PA official on the illusions that underpin the talks about starting talks.
Ghassan Khatib, former director of communications for the Palestinian Authority, says:
The thing that bothers me is that it seems that the resumption of negotiations is seen as an objective in itself. But the problem was never the lack of negotiations, direct or indirect. It is the huge gap between Israel’s stated position and its practices, and the lack of willingness by the US to put pressure on them.
The Palestinians have put a great deal of their aspirations in abeyance in the hope that there will be a payoff later. Time will tell whether what they’ve given up was worth it.
Returning to the US letter of understanding, Washington’s affirmation that Israel is a Jewish state will be news to over 20 per cent of Israelis who are Palestinian citizens of this state, definitely not Jewish, and who are also not equal in rights to Jews.
Such a guarantee is a US affirmation of a de facto version of Israeli apartheid. Not only is Israel occupying millions of Palestinians across the Green Line, but endorsing Israel as a Jewish state will enforce the second or third-class citizenship of all non-Jewish citizens within the Green Line.
Israel is supposedly engaged in a tacit settlement freeze by which they have built no new settlements for some time (although, of course, they’ve continued building in existing ones). This is as close to a settlement freeze the Palestinian are likely to get.
Who speaks for Palestine?
Another factor of these talks that leads me to question their chance of success is the Palestinian interlocutor.
By what right does Mahmoud Abbas negotiate the fate of Palestine? Serving in a rump position and self-appointed, his authority to sign any deal on behalf of the Palestinians is questionable. If Israel and the US truly want such a partner (and whether they do is open to question, because he would be too independent), they should encourage Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, so that a national Palestinian political consensus can emerge that will ratify such an agreement.
Regarding Israel, it seems clear that Netanyahu will be unable to carry his far-right coalition into any peace agreement that is remotely based on 1967 borders. In fact, Naftali Bennett – a far right political leader – has already threatened to bolt under such conditions.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the idea of a peace agreement is currently impossible and will not happen “for years.” Which is, of course, what Bibi believes as well…but cannot admit publicly.
If these negotiations ever get serious, the Israeli prime minister’s only option would be to stall or abandon them (or better yet, to hope his Palestinian interlocutors do so first).
Another alternative would be to ditch his far-right partners and form a new centrist coalition with Labour. Netanyahu has never been a centrist nor cohabited willingly with any. The idea of a centrist Israeli coalition under his leadership is a liberal Zionist dream with little chance of reality.
The Martin Indyk hour
Kerry’s appointment of Martin Indyk as his”peace envoy” is another troubling development.
His predecessor John George Mitchell had that role towards the beginning of Obama’s first term. But Mitchell failed because Obama wasn’t willing to use the power of his office to pressure the Israelis into a deal. Despite such a failure, at least one might say that Mitchell was truly an honest broker. He had no strong affiliation with either side, no vested interests, nor any hostility against either side.
Indyk is entirely different: He co-founded the pro-Israeli Aipac-affiliated think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, with Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy.
Later, he became US ambassador to Israel under former President Bill Clinton. He now works at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Centre, which is heavily endowed by one of Aipac’s most powerful donors, Haim Saban.
There seems to be a notion among US presidents that to secure Israeli-Palestinian peace they need an Aipac-intimate playing a key role. That’s how Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Aaron David Miller and a number of other similar figures played leading roles in US-led peace negotiations.
Neither Ross nor Indyk has any special affinity or interest in the Palestinians, except as a means to an end (a peace deal that responds to and guarantees Israeli interests).
The NY Times calls the Brookings think-tanker “a seasoned hand,” which misses the key reasons for his appointment and his political affiliations. The NYT also adds this questionable judgment about Abbas’ relationship with Indyk:
Mr. Indyk has maintained a good rapport with Mr. Abbas …
If this is indeed true (which may or may not be the case), it indicates that Abbas can’t represent Palestinian interests. Why would any truly independent Palestinian leader ratify as mediator an envoy who subordinated his (Palestinian) interests to Israel’s? The NYT misunderstands Palestinian interests as Palestinians see them.
There is little chance that the Palestinians will trust Indyk to represent them. If they do, then they must be desperate to reach a deal. He will be carrying water for the Israelis while claiming to be Palestine’s best friend.
When push comes to shove, he’s there to put pressure the Palestinians to acquiesce to Israel’s interests.
DOA: Forget Right of Return
You can expect no substantive recognition of Right of Return in any form from an Indyk-brokered negotiation. You can expect more settlers and settlements to be included inside Israel’s boundaries in any map offered to the Palestinians. Any offer of East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital will surely be attenuated in significant ways.
This iteration of the peace process appears dead on arrival. The sooner Kerry realises this, the less political face he will lose. What is being proposed shows that Obama has no real interest in settling the conflict. He wants to be seen to be doing something. And what he’s seen to be doing he hopes will last for the next three years so he can kick the can down the road for the next guy.
Or, as former Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney so inimitably put it in the infamous “48 per cent speech” that might’ve cost him the presidency: To kick the football down the field.”
If the talks fail, the US will have even less leverage to mediate other conflicts in the Arab world like the civil unrest in Egypt or Syria.
Our motives and commitment are already questioned by the parties on the ground. Failing to deliver in Israeli-Palestinian talks will reinforce the notion that the US is receding in influence in the region. This in turn will further destabilize already tense situations in those countries.
It will allow a vacuum to be filled by outside interests like Al-Qaeda and others who have far different values and goals.
Richard Silverstein photo courtesy of Seattle Times/Erika Schultz.
The Tikun Olam blog can be found here.