Friday, 26 April 2013

A four-way peace summit?

It's a well-known fact that rumours abound in the higher echelons of government, and however absurd some of them might appear to the casual observer, a proportion will, in the nature of things, turn out to be well-founded.

On 25 April 2013, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping to convene a four-way peace summit in June, which would see the participation of US President Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah.

The report also suggests that Egypt and Turkey would have some involvement in the meeting, and that the putative summit will be high on the agenda of upcoming visits to Washington by King Abdullah and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On 26 April, Ha’aretz reported that the Obama administration, in the person of White House spokesman Patrick Ventrell, had categorically denied the story. Bernadette Meehan, National Security Council Spokesperson, had said: “These reports are not true.” You could scarcely get more categorical than that.

However, neither rumour-mongers nor investigative journalists let a good story slip away as easily as that. Ha’aretz’s well-founded US sources quickly ascribed Washington’s formal denials to a suggestion that Israel may have been upset by the leak of the summit plan, leading the administration to back-track.

And despite the denials, Ha’aretz’s “well-placed American sources” continued to insist that a four-way summit, leading to renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians, had indeed been discussed with Middle East leaders and foreign ministers. Ha’aretz reports that one diplomatic source told the paper that the sides had been encouraged to “come up with ideas” that would enable the summit to convene.

The sources said that Turkey, Egypt and other Arab countries may also be invited to participate in the summit, though it’s not clear yet at what level. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to these sources, discussed the planned summit in his meetings in Istanbul this past week with the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministers, as well as with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The highly speculative, twice-denied, summit may also, Ha’aretz reports, be discussed at the White House meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah on 26 April, as well as in a mid-May Washington visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan.

Moving on from speculation to speculation, it is confidently predicted that the summit would most likely take place in Washington in June 2013, although the exact date would avoid clashing with the Israeli Presidential Conference during the same month, which also marks the ninetieth birthday celebrations of Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

It is certainly true that since taking office, Secretary of State Kerry has sought to kick-start direct peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He has been assiduous in his efforts, making frequent trips to the region, but not always avoiding a bloomer or two.

For example, the rapprochement he brokered between Israel and Turkey during Obama’s visit to the region was far from waterproof. Part of the deal was that the trial in absentia of four Israeli military leaders for their part in the Mavi Marmara incident would be discontinued. It is still being pursued.

During a further visit to Turkey last week, at the height of the furore in the States over the terrorist bombing of the Boston marathon, Kerry referred again to the Mavi Marmara incident. The Mavi Marmara was a Turkish ship that sailed to Gaza in May 2010 in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade against Hamas. Militants attacked Israeli soldiers as they boarded, and the soldiers shot and killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American.

“I particularly say to the families of people who were lost in the incident,” said Kerry, “we understand these tragedies completely and we sympathize with them. I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence, and something happens, and you lose people that are near and dear to you. It affects a community, it affects a country. We’re very sensitive to that.”

Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Danny Danon, rejected Kerry’s attempt to draw a moral equivalence between terrorists and the victims of terror. Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director, Matt Brooks, said: “Secretary Kerry should retract these remarks as soon as possible. It’s unconscionable to compare the loss of life resulting from an act of self-defence to the results of cold-blooded, premeditated murder by terrorists.”

Nevertheless, it seems clear that John Kerry is deeply committed to achieving results in the Middle East peace process in general, and an accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians in particular. He recently emphasised that urgency is needed over the next two years in order to realise a two-state solution.

Reverting to the rumoured, and denied, summit, it is unclear whether it would be dependent on Kerry having already achieved a breakthrough to pave the way for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks. Kerry has met with Abbas five times in recent weeks in an effort to circumvent the Palestinian leader’s insistence on a settlement freeze as a precondition to resuming negotiations.

“We have two or three weeks left to see if this thing is doable,” one source is reported to have said.

Apparently, the rumour runs, if the summit does take place, terms of reference may be adopted in advance, including the principle of two states for two peoples, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which is aimed at facilitating a comprehensive peace across the Arab world, and economic aid for the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli daily, Maariv, reported during the week that Kerry has secured agreement for the United States and other foreign powers to invest in large-scale economic initiatives in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, designed to revive the ailing PA-run economy − undoubtedly a sweetener to help induce the reluctant Abbas to return to the negotiating table, whether or not the four-way summit ever sees the light of day.

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 April 2013:

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