Two notes on the Secretary of State’s mission to Israel/Palestine.
1. Some time during the month of June, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to announce whether he will be able to reach a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. Two (out of three) months have passed since President’s Obama trip to Israel and Ramallah, and Kerry’s mission seems to have met a brick wall. Meaningful negotiations are nowhere nearer than they were last year or the year before. In fact, if there is one thing both Israelis and Palestinians agree about, it is the unlikelihood of a breakthrough.
Kerry just concluded another trip to the region, and due to the lack of progress he won’t be coming back in the next couple of weeks. His current visit was conducted under the shadow of the Israeli decision to recognize four new Jewish outposts in the occupied territories – a decision that strayed farther than any previous government from Israel’s commitment to the Bush administration to remove all new outposts and refrain from recognizing new settlements.
On Friday, Kerry held a press conference at Ben Gurion International Airport, in which he refused to provide a deadline for his efforts or go into any specifics vis-a-vis the positions of both parties (the full transcription of the press conference can be found here). Kerry also praised both parties for their desire for peace and warned against giving in to cynicism. He promised to continue his efforts, no matter what hurdles he will encounter.
Many people believe that there is a need to project such “optimism,” and nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. However, what this moment calls for, more than anything else, is some honesty. Kerry would have done his own cause justice if he simply stated that there is no peace process, nor has there been one in recent times, and that the current trends on the ground are likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
Such statement would have forced the Israeli public – or at least parts of it – to seriously asses the long-term implications of its government’s policies. Furthermore, it would have saved what is left of the administrations credibility as a broker in this conflict, and it would have forced other states and agencies to reevaluate their relations and level of cooperation with what has become a permanent occupation. Donors to the Palestinian Authority would have to decide whether they want to continue financing what is now an arm of the Israeli administration. Moreover, companies would have to answer for their profits from the status quo. All of the above would become an enormous incentive for change.
Instead, what Kerry is doing – and with him, all those who support his mission or at least pay lip service to it – is providing everyone involved with an alibi for inaction. He is now a part of the problem he is complaining about.
2. At the Ben Gurion Airport press conference, Kerry was twice asked about the four outposts Israel decided to recognize retroactively. He gave the same response the Obama administration has been giving ever since it was “humbled” (as Peter Beinart calls it in his book) by the pro-Israeli lobby’s attack on the president in 2010:
… our position on settlements and outposts and on the legalization is that we are opposed to it. We believe that that is not appropriate, and, in fact, is not constructive in the context of our efforts to move forward. But it should not be something, as I just said, that prevents us from being able to get to negotiations.
As I’ve said, we are trying to get to talks without pre-conditions. We do not want to get stuck in a place where we are arguing about a particular substantive issue that is actually part of a final settlement, and that argument takes you so long that you never get to the negotiations that bring about the final settlement.
A word about the notion of “no pre-conditions”: when an American or an Israeli official uses this phrase, what he/she actually means is “no pre-conditions for Israel,” since both Israel and the administration pose many pre-conditions for the Palestinians. The most basic ones are to abandon armed struggle (both in action and as a formal policy) and to recognize Israel. This is, after all, the reason Hamas is kept out of the political process. At the same time, Israel was never asked to formally recognize the Palestinians’ right to this land, nor has its government ever voted in favor of the two-state solution nor demanded that a settlement freeze last more than a brief moment.
The Palestinians have agreed to all the Israeli/American pre-conditions. In exchange, their only demand is that talks be meaningful – in other words, that certain territorial principles be established – otherwise the entire thing is a waste of both time and political capital (even this simple principle has been abandoned by the U.S.). Under such circumstances, even if Kerry is able to force Abbas into talks, no serious process can take place.
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