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Is Kerry out to make peace, or a peace process?

Obama clarified last week that the United States has its own distinct interests, and renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is certainly one of them. But is the U.S. actually aiming for peace, or does the peace process itself serve American interests in the region?

It’s all smiles until someone gets hurt — (Photo: WEF/Benedikt von Loebell)

The United States is once again thrusting itself into one of the more intractable conflicts of the past century. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has touched down in Israel every few weeks since taking office and Barack Obama finally made his first visit as president, throwing his weight behind Kerry’s efforts. Although it may seem like a given, there is one important question: why?

In his second term, President Obama appears to be taking seriously his goal to reverse the foreign policy disaster his predecessor created in the Middle East. By pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan he will have ended both of George W. Bush’s conventional wars, and just last week, he announced an eventual end to Bush’s more ambiguous war on terror. Going even further, Obama announced limitations and offered explanations for his own – extremely unpopular and deadly – drone program, which has exponentially increased ill will toward the U.S. in Muslim countries.

But hidden in his speech on drone and counter-terrorism strategy, Obama gave context to the U.S.’s interests in its latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“We are working to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help reshape attitudes in the region,” the President explained. (Emphasis added)

It’s a concept Obama introduced in a much-anticipated and quickly forgotten speech outlining his administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East two years ago. Speaking to diplomats at Foggy Bottom, he said, the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.”

In other words, the perpetuation of Israel’s life-long conflict with the Palestinians and wider Arab world harms U.S. interests in the region. Taking the conflict off the table would shrink many of America’s hurdles to advancing its diplomatic, military, economic and energy interests in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Without explicitly mentioning American interests, the U.S. secretary of state this week warned that failure to resolve – or at least address – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would result in “perpetual war.” That war is not Israel’s alone, it is also Washington’s, irrespective of whether there are American boots on the ground.

It is in that context that the United States is making its latest push to restart negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As Obama affirmed last week, the United States does have a moral interest in ending the occupation and making peace. But the greater interest is freeing the United States from the bonds of negative association with Palestine’s occupier.

So what does an American president do? He makes a public effort. If something comes of it, great. If it never goes further than resurrecting the long-exhausted and self-interested process with little hope making actual peace, well at least he can say he tried.

A few days ago, Noam Sheizaf argued that the best thing Kerry can do for peace is to admit that there’s no peace process: “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.” The argument holds water. Israelis need to be shown – and made to feel –that the situation is not tenable, and forcing them to deal with the occupation’s consequences may accomplish that goal.

Sheizaf’s mistake, however, lies in his assessment of Kerry’s “cause.” Peace is not America’s primary interest, although it would certainly serve Washington – and especially the State Department. America’s interest is what a peace process, and perceived American determination to end injustice in Palestine, can do for American foreign policy, standing and influence in the region.

Although not the topic of his recent speech, Obama put significant emphasis on the need to enlarge and strengthen Washington’s soft power in the world. “American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears,” he said, in defense of domestically unpopular foreign aid programs.

Connecting with peoples’ hopes and dreams may sound like a continuation of Obama’s 2008 election campaign and a humanistic approach to world leadership by making and strengthening friendships. Primarily, however, it is a vehicle for furthering foreign policy goals and rebuilding American hegemony.

As Henry Kissinger once paraphrased Charles de Gualle, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

Obama is not venturing back into Middle East peacemaking with the pure intention of making the world a better place, or of making peace. He needs a peace process for his administration’s and his country’s own interests in the region. If Kerry is successful in achieving what both Israelis and Palestinians have largely given up on, Obama will be happy. But even if the next peace process bears no fruit, he will also be able to claim a quiet victory. It is entirely possible that at least as much as peace, the process is the goal: a convoluted good-will gesture toward the Arab world.

Of course, a fruitless process could spell disaster for Israelis and Palestinians. Even when it provides only miniscule hope for those on the ground, a peace process inherently raises expectations, and high expectations can lead to greater disappointment and despair, which in turn can bring violent deterioration on the ground.

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    1. Richard Witty

      He’s out to create forward movement, where there is none currently.

      He is putting Palestine back on the map of political discussion, rather than nowhere.

      The comments that demand completion, are addicted to magic.

      There are other criteria for determining sincerity versus insincerity that actually serve to help Palestine and Palestinians, rather than the bland litmus tests.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        Sincere starts with justice not with a bribe.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Witty

          Justice is a process.

          Reply to Comment
    2. ish yehudi

      There was a well-thought out article with a similiar analysis from Times of Israel yesterday, by ( isearched now and couldn’t find it ?) about how Americas peace flurry is going after its interests here (hedging their position with both Israel by not pressuring too hard/ reaffirming support and with the Arab world by being clearly pro-Palestinian.) That shouldn’t come as such a big surprise– and its a little more reassuring than thinking that the US foreign policy people are that blind to whats actually happening here. But more interesting is the article by David Horovitz – Memo to Kerry, Its not the economy stupid.
      The points raised in that piece are ones that I think are crucial to adress.
      Especially as everyone Bibi-bashes, without acknowledging the place from which most Israeli’s ended up supporting him- a politician that nobody likes. And why Israeli politicians are so damned intransigent- complete lack of trust in the Palestinian side.
      I’m not saying its not vice versa too. But on this site it all leans one way.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Barry Meridian

      Don’t forget Abbas said at this meeting in Jordan yesterday, he wants to flood Israel with millions of Arabs.
      So the Palestinians do want 2 states.
      2 Palestinian states. They want a state that is Jew free and to flood Israel with millions of Arabs for the 2nd state.
      The Palestinian Rejectionists will have to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, just as the Arabs states are all Jew free as the Arabs wanted.

      The Palestinians have never wanted peace.
      Israelis have wanted peace all along. Abbas, Arafat and the rest have done nothing but deny, demand, evade and incite.
      They have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

      Thats why they rejected the Olmert offer.
      Because they cant stand the fact their would be a Jewish state not controlled by Palestinian fascists.

      Abbas failed to accept my peace offer because he’s ‘no hero,’ says Olmert
      Former prime minister offers new details of his 2008 Palestinian statehood proposal, addresses refugee absorption within the Green Line
      May 24, 2013

      Reply to Comment
    4. Barry Meridian

      Abbas and Fatah have put a lot of energy into celebrating the murders of Israeli civilians by Palestinians terrorists as Palmediawatch has brilliantly documented.
      They don’t just celebrate murdering us once or twice – they still celebrate murders they committed of Israelis in the 1970s.
      Their culture is one big murder cult (with our civilians as their targets)

      Reply to Comment
    5. Barry Meridian

      Last week people saw the Nazi flag flown above a West Bank mosque.
      Abbas refused to take it down.
      Nazi flag flies high over West Bank mosque
      May 21, 2013

      According to an enraged Gush Etzion resident Uri Arnon:
      I felt we were going back 75 years, losing our hold on the land.
      The Arabs no longer feel the need to hide their murderous tendencies, announcing out loud that they wish to annihilate us.

      We’ve known about the Arab love for Hitler for years. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a best seller in the Arab countries.
      The parallels between Islamism and Fascism are quite striking – both are authoritarian ,anti-semitic, and obsessed with purity.

      Hamas: “Killing Jews is Worship that Draws Us Closer to Allah”
      NOVEMBER 28 2012

      Likewise Ashrawi’s Miftah are promoting blood libels against Jews, saying Jews drink the blood of Christians to make Matzah. Not a word of condemnation by Prof Falk.

      Ashrawi’s Miftah also glorified Palestinian female homicide bombers who have murdered defenseless Israeli civilians in restaurants.

      Ashrawi’s Miftah promotes blood libel of Jews
      March 28, 2013

      Hanan Ashrawi’s Miftah NGO also praises female terrorist
      March 29, 2013

      The last thing the PLO wants is to end the conflict.
      Having a conflict is a goldmine for them.
      The PLO is getting billions in aid by having a conflict.
      And as long as the Palestinians remain rejectionists”, the naïve world would feel sorry for these terrorists that murder Israei civilians and will shower them with money and resources and would endow their leaders with comfortable lifestyle—not a bad outcome for a fake cause.

      Reply to Comment
    6. NIZ

      “They don’t just celebrate murdering us once or twice – they still celebrate murders they committed of Israelis in the 1970s.
      Their culture is one big murder cult (with our civilians as their targets)”
      And what are you, but the son of a settler? You speak of Palestinians with complete contempt, as if you are something else but the precise negation of their existence: The son of a murderous project, with violence and seclusion at its core. What are you so bewildered about? That Palestinians refuse to roll over and die. The violence that you speak of – so appalled about- is visited upon the Palestinians by your charming soldiers for the past 80 years. I am not a pacifist, if you come to my house with a gun, I sure would love to burry you under it- If I can. Never again!!!

      Reply to Comment