Monday, 13 May 2013

The persistent Mr Kerry

The rusting engine of the peace process seems to be coughing its way back into life. Stalled since September 2010, when Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank came to an end and was not renewed, US President Obama – just starting his second term – seems determined to kick-start the motor into action. Will he ever get it to a desirable destination, humming along on all eight cylinders? Precedent and the odds are against him, but politics is an unpredictable game.

The new US Secretary of State, John Kelly, charged with reinvigorating Arab-Israeli relations, has set about his task with a refreshing enthusiasm.

An early success was initiating a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey – a month later still somewhat shaky, but undeniably in existence. Since then he has, with dash and dynamism, striven to facilitate a resumption of face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (the PA). It was a triumph of diplomatic adroitness on his part to organise a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Washington on 29 April, hosted by him in conjunction with Vice-President Joe Biden. It was an even greater coup to obtain from them a concession – tiny though it may seem, and instantly rejected by hostile voices as it was – that modified the spirit of the original Arab Peace Proposal of 2002. Following the discussions, the Arab League ministers conceded that the borders of a future sovereign Palestine need not be precisely the boundaries between Israel and the West Bank on 4 June 1967 (the day before the Six-Day War), but could be the subject of “minor land swaps.”

The statement by Qatari Prime Minister Sheik al-Thani at the end of the meeting, confirming the delegation’s agreement to this modification, acted as a political catalyst. It suddenly seemed, in both Washington and Jerusalem, that meaningful peace negotiations might once again be a possibility.

A flurry of diplomatic activity ensued. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Justice Minister responsible also for peace negotiations, flew over to Washington to discuss the developing situation with him. A few days later, Kerry was off to Rome to meet with Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh. The result? A declaration by Kerry that Jordan, because of its geographical and diplomatic affinity with Israel, was an essential partner to peace.

“It is absolutely critical,” said Kerry, “for all of us to try to move speedily and with focus to try to get to a place where everybody understands we are engaged in a serious process to reopen negotiations. Jordan will play a key role in that.”

Meanwhile Tzipi Livni repacked her overnight bag, and took her own flight to Rome, where once again she was on the scene to follow up Kerry’s breakneck initiative. Back in Israel, Livni lauded Kerry’s dynamism which, she said, had given the peace process a new momentum.

Even Fatah seems to have caught a whiff of the new “can-do” spirit. On 11 May 2013 the Fatah Central Committee not only welcomed US efforts to revive the peace process, but formally accepted the Arab League’s proposal to authorise land swaps with Israel when determining the borders of a future Palestine. Hamas would endorse neither position.

The real question, of course, is whether all this energy and enthusiasm is leading either Israel or the Palestinians to a desirable destination. The declared objective is two states living side by side in peace and cooperation. Rejected are two versions of the one-state solution – the Hamas doctrine of Palestine “from the river to the sea” with Israel eliminated from the scene, and the bizarre proposal from Israel’s hard-liners to annex Judea and Samaria and pay its Arab inhabitants to re-settle elsewhere. The consequence of this hare-brained scheme seems obvious – not a government in the world would recognise this land-grab. Israel would have added its friends to the already long enough list of its enemies, and guaranteed for itself a future of continuous conflict both diplomatic and military.

On the other hand, continuous conflict is the fear underlying Israel’s right-wing extremists. Inviting one’s enemy into one’s drawing-room, so that he can the more easily cut your throat, seems to them quixotic – and would indeed be so, unless copper-bottomed guarantees of future security for Israel are built into any final peace accord. Can such assurances indeed be formulated and agreed between the parties? One of the many questions still hanging in the air.

No doubt another tricky conundrum is exercising John Kerry and his officials – how to achieve a sovereign Palestine when a vital piece of the jigsaw, namely the Gaza strip, home to well over a million Palestinians, is missing. They have no doubt considered that one unsatisfactory, and interim, outcome to Kerry’s current peace efforts might be a West Bank Palestine run by the Fatah-dominated PA, and a Gazan mini-Islamist state run by Hamas. They may calculate that once Gazan Palestinians see an actual sovereign Palestine up and running, the political atmosphere might change, rejectionism might lose its appeal, and the PA might be able to resume its authority within Gaza. Wishful thinking? Undoubtedly.

Meanwhile it appears that John Kerry has given himself until 7 June to announce the results of his current efforts to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. One authoritative speculation, which describes itself as an “exclusive”, affirms that Kerry has obtained the agreement of both Netanyahu and Abbas for a novel plan to run peace negotiations simultaneously on twin tracks: the first would see Israel facing the PA across the table; the second, Israel facing the Arab League in direct discussions, for the first time ever. He will be back in Israel on 23 May, perhaps to advance this very plan.

We wait with bated breath.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 13 May 2013:

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