Sunday, 14 April 2013

Kerry and the Arab-Israeli peace process

The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has tentatively dipped his toe into the murky waters of the Arab-Israeli dispute, and has already had it nipped rather badly − not once, but several times.

Barack Obama returned to the White House at the start of his second presidential term clearly determined to make headway in the struggle for an accommodation between Israel and the Arab world. His personal visit to the Middle East shortly after his return to office was an obvious signal of his intention to engage his administration in a new peace-making effort. Back in 2009, on his first time around, Obama had appointed a special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to carry forward his attempt to bring Israel and the Palestinians to an agreement. This time he by-passed Mitchell’s successor, David Hale, and − emphasising the importance of the task − has charged his newly-appointed Secretary of State, John Kerry, directly to head it.

An early success, initiated by Kerry three weeks before President Obama arrived in the region, was brought to an apparent triumphant conclusion a few minutes before the president boarded Air Force One for his flight back home. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had been persuaded to offer his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as much by way of an apology as he could, diplomatically and politically, for Israeli operational failures during the Mavi Marmara affair. Meanwhile, Secretary Kerry had been conducting intensive negotiations with Turkey for some three weeks, aimed at ensuring that the apology, when tendered, would be accepted.

The apology by Netanyahu was made on the understanding that Turkey would abandon its intention of putting four senior Israeli officials on trial, in absentia, charged with war crimes, while Erdogan’s acceptance was made on the understanding that Israel would pay compensation to the families of the nine Turkish citizens who were killed during the skirmish. It seemed like a acceptable deal for both parties.

The apology was duly made, and apparently accepted, although with a good deal of triumphalist bragging on Erdogan’s part about this “victory” over Israel − an aspect of the affair diplomatically glossed over by John Kerry on his return to Turkey, his third visit to the Middle East in as many weeks. What Kerry cannot ignore, however, is the fact that the lawsuit being heard in absentia in an Istanbul court against four of Israel's most senior retired commanders, including the ex-army chief, has not been dropped and apparently will not be, according to Turkish participants, even if the terms for compensation are agreed. A first sharp lesson to Kerry of the realpolitik that rules in the Middle East − and little assurance that his bid to normalise Turco-Israeli relations will be successful, at least in the short term (“We would like to see the relationship get back on track in its full measure,” said Kerry after meeting with Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu) .

A second rebuff to Kerry followed swiftly, administered as a double-whammy by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

There had been reports that the Obama administration is once again − as at the start of Obama’s first term − pinning its hopes on the Arab Peace Plan of 2002 to provide some sort of template to kick-start the Israel-Palestinian peace process back into life. Israel has never agreed to the Arab League plan, though it has never formally rejected it. Putting it back on the table, it was surmised, was meant to galvanize Arab support and draw in Turkey.

The Arab Initiative offers Israel a comprehensive peace and a renunciation of further Arab land claims in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in 1967. In all subsequent discussions between Israel and the PA it has been taken for granted by both sides that in any final agreement the 1967 boundaries would be modified by “agreed land swaps” to account for major Israeli settlements. In addition, the United States was reported to want more security commitments between Arab states and Israel.

In a first brush-off by the PA – which was not enamoured of the Obama-Netanyahu love-in during the US President’s visit to Israel − chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Voice of Palestine radio station last week − “Kerry asked us to change a few words in the Arab Peace Initiative, but we refused.”

Subsequently, Kerry has denied that the US does, in fact, intend to base future negotiations on the old Arab initiative.

And then, before Kerry arrived back in the Middle East, he had asked the PA to refrain from any action that could harm efforts to restart talks on an eventual two-state solution − such as pursuing claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court. All the PA would offer was to do so for a period of eight weeks. “We are not canceling those efforts,” said an official, “but we are freezing them.”

Not the most promising of starts to Obama’s well-intentioned efforts to reactivate the peace process, especially given the other pressing problems in the region − Iran’s nuclear ambitions and what to do about them, the worsening situation in Syria, the knock-on effect of the flood of refugees into Jordan and Lebanon, and the effort to prevent Syria’s stockpile of weapons, both conventional and chemical, from falling into the hands of Iran, its terrorist protegés like Hezbollah, or any of the jihadist groups that hope to come out on top when Syria finally collapses. All of which, compared to 2009-2010, provides a very different backdrop to this current peace effort by Obama.

One western diplomat is reported as saying: "It's too early to be optimistic."

That’s putting it mildly.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 10 April 2013:

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