Thursday, 2 May 2013

Israel and Palestine: signs of a thaw

Yes, in these early days of May 2013 cracks are appearing in the solidly frozen iceberg that has been the Israel-Palestine peace process over the past two-and-a half-years. Is this the start of a genuine thaw? Too early to say – but the atmosphere is certainly warming up.

From the moment US President Barack Obama assumed office for his second term in January 2013, he made it clear that his administration would accord a high degree of priority to tackling the Arab-Israel conflict in general, and the Israel-Palestine issue in particular. In point of fact he had attempted to do just that, back in January 2009, but subsequent events had demonstrated all too clearly that his first effort had gone disastrously wrong. He would not make the same mistakes a second time.

It was on 22 January 2009, in a special ceremony in the White House, that newly-elected President Barack Obama named George Mitchell his "special envoy to the Middle East" charged with seeking a "comprehensive peace". The event, attended also by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was widely interpreted as a determination on Obama's part to involve himself and his new administration in working for, and in finally achieving, a settlement to the long-running Arab-Israel dispute.

At the ceremony Mitchell said that, along with Obama and Clinton, he believed the objective of a Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side was possible, and that the conflict, old as it was, could be resolved.

In March 2009 the Obama administration explicitly incorporated into US policy the 2002 Arab League peace plan, originally mooted by Saudi Arabia, under which the Arab world undertook formally to recognise Israel and enter into normal relations with her in exchange, inter alia, for Israel's withdrawing from territories captured in the 1967 war. Three months later President Obama, in an unprecedented move, reached out to the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo. The "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world, he declared, must end. He called for a "new beginning"; both sides needed to make a "sustained effort... to respect one another and seek common ground". The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians' plight was "intolerable".

To the fledgling administration in Washington, this initiative by America’s first black president must have seemed a bold, unprecedented step well worth the effort. Perhaps this president, with his Black Power background, could achieve things that no other could even have contemplated.

It was not long before reality overtook aspirations. It quickly became apparent that all the overtures in the world counted for nothing against the reality of Iran's nuclear ambitions. As for Syria, when reports emerged of their transfer of a batch of highly sophisticated Scud missiles to the terrorist organisation Hezbollah in Lebanon, Obama’s plan to reinstate formal diplomatic relations was put on hold. In Gaza, the Islamist terrorist group Hamas, having seized control of the Strip in a bloody internecine coup d'état, remained virtually at war with Fatah, its rivals within the Palestinian Authority, and deeply opposed to any accommodation with, or even recognition of, Israel.

So although George Mitchell’s unremitting efforts did result, in September 2010, in the first of a few face-to-face meetings between Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, they soon petered out. They foundered on Obama’s own outright condemnation of the resumption of construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements, following the 10-month building freeze that he had persuaded Netanyahu to institute. Construction in the West Bank had never previously inhibited peace talks between the PA and Israel, but with the US President condemning them outright, Abbas had been painted into a corner and could scarcely do less.

Obama’s second effort has so far endeavoured to by-pass the obstacles in his first. There has been no renewal of his overtures to the Muslim world. On the contrary, he made a point of visiting Israel early in his second term, and reiterating his support for a renewal of the peace process – a support which made no direct reference to construction in the West Bank. He has voiced a hard line against Iran’s continued nuclear activity, although not perhaps as hard a line as Israel’s prime minister – also in office for a further term – might wish. He has called for Syria’s President Bashar Assad to step down, in light of the remorseless hammering of his own civilian population in the course of his civil conflict.

And to carry forward the administration’s policy of achieving a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute, President Obama has designated not a “special envoy” but the Secretary of State himself, John Kerry.

Kerry has been notably vigorous and enthusiastic in tackling his formidable task. Unsparing of his personal convenience, he began his new effort with a succession of visits to the region – three in as many weeks. An early, if partial, success was his brokering of a somewhat shaky rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Meanwhile the US quietly unblocked almost $500 million in aid to the PA which had been frozen by Congress for months, and Kerry promised further economic assistance in developing the Palestinian economy, presumably as a sweetener to the PA to return to meaningful negotiations.

Kerry wanted the Arab League to play a role in the process, to ensure that any future peace negotiations had as wide a backing across the Arab world as possible, and to out-manoeuvre the Islamist rejectionists. Most members of the League are hostile to Islamist fundamentalists, opposed as the jihadists are to any accommodation with Israel, but also to many stable Arab régimes which they regard as over-secular in character.

On the last day of April 2013, Kerry and US Vice-President Joe Biden hosted an Arab League delegation, which included the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, and senior officials from Lebanon, the PA and Saudi Arabia. The discussions focused on the principles of the 2002 Arab League Initiative, which proposed full Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a return to the boundaries of 4 June 1967 (the day before the outbreak of the Six-Day War), the inclusion of East Jerusalem in a future Palestinian state and the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel.

Israel had never formally rejected the Arab peace plan, but nor did it ever accept it. One objection, of several, was the principle of establishing the border of a sovereign Palestine along the cease-fire line of the Israeli and Jordanian armies in 1949 – which is what the 1967 boundary was. In 1967 there was no recognized international border between the West Bank and Israel. The Armistice line was the position on the ground when the fighting stopped. In fact, Article II of the Armistice with Jordan explicitly specified that the agreement did not compromise any future territorial claims of the parties, since it had been "dictated exclusively by military considerations."

As Dr Dore Gold, the renowned expert on Middle East affairs, has pointed out, after the Six-Day War the architects of UN Security Council Resolution 242 insisted that the old armistice line had to be replaced with a new border. "Which is why," Dr Gold writes, "Resolution 242 did not call for a full withdrawal from all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War; the 1949 Armistice lines were no longer to be a reference point for a future peace process."

US President Lyndon Johnson made this very point in September 1968: "It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders."

The 1949 Armistice line, of course, takes no account of geographical and demographic changes over the past 64 years, so it must be regarded as something of a triumph for John Kerry that, in his meeting with them, the Arab League delegation softened its stance on this issue. Qatari Prime Minister Sheik al-Thani said that the delegation agreed to the possibility of “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

“We’ve had a very positive, very constructive discussion,” said Kerry. “The Arab League delegation affirmed…the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line* [*note “line” not “border” - NT], with the (possibility) of comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land.”

Israel’s President Shimon Peres, in his visit to Pope Francis on 30 April, designated this development as “a new opportunity for peace.” Prime Minister Netanyahu said on 2 May to a visiting delegation of five US congressmen: “We’re engaged right now in an effort that we appreciate, led by President Obama and Secretary John Kerry, to restart the peace negotiations between us and the Palestinians. We’re eager to do it; we have no preconditions.”

What was not said in the statement by the Arab League, however, is almost as significant as what was – for the League made no mention of Hamas, the Islamist terrorist organization that is the elephant in the room. Controlling a large proportion of any future sovereign Palestine, viscerally opposed to recognizing, let alone negotiating with, Israel, and almost certainly aiming to oust both Abbas from the PA presidency and Fatah from control of the PA, Hamas represents a major obstacle to any peace process as long as it remains in control of Gaza. Most of the knotty problems requiring resolution in a final peace agreement have been discussed ad nauseam  in the years of previous negotiations between the two sides, and have pretty obvious answers. What to do about Hamas and the Gaza Strip in any final accommodation remains a loose end.

Kerry’s next move? Well, according to some sources it could be hosting a four-way summit, as a precursor to renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This speculation – which, it must be acknowledged, has been denied by official US spokespersons – also indicated that Turkey, Egypt and other Arab countries might be invited to participate in the summit, though at what level was not made clear. According to these sources, Kerry discussed the planned summit in his recent meetings in Istanbul with the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministers, as well as with PA President Abbas. It might also have been be discussed at the White House meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah on 26 April, and could feature on the agenda in the planned mid-May Washington visit by Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Putting aside all speculation, it seems clear that Kerry has taken up his Middle East challenge with energy and enthusiasm. Through undoubted diplomatic skill and the application of sheer persistence, he has injected renewed animation into what many had already written off as a defunct corpse. Whether he and President Obama can succeed in the major enterprise to which they have dedicated themselves – the conclusion of a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – where so many have failed before them, time alone will tell. From the standpoint of these early days of May 2013, all we can say is that they have made a positive start.

Published in shortened form in Eurasia Review, 2 May 2013:

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