Given the turmoil surrounding the Arab Middle East, the endless bloodletting in Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, as well as Iran’s hegemonic drive in the region – which has opened a Sunni-Shite fault-line – Kerry’s obsessive focus on the creation of a Palestinian state seems somewhat incomprehensible.
“Kerry’s eagerness,” according to Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator who is now Vice President at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, “stems from being in a different place than Hillary Clinton and serving a changed White House. For Mr. Kerry, this job is the capstone of his career, a post he coveted second only to the presidency, and his aides say he is willing to take considerable risk to cement his legacy as a peacemaker. For Clinton, who still has a potential run in her future, secretary of state was a steppingstone, allowing her to burnish her credentials but also carrying potential risks, not least in the politically charged terrain of the Middle East. While Clinton dutifully made the rounds, she rarely took a big gamble on the peace process.”
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel, on yet another visit, on Wednesday, December 4, 2013, for meetings with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. On Thursday he was scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. The purpose of the rushed meetings is to bring about a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinians negotiations that began in July and have stalled several times since then.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, deeply disappointed with the P5+1 Interim Agreement with Iran, in which the US played a major role, is not eager to make additional concessions to the Palestinians. Kerry’s trip is meant to smooth things over regarding Iran, but more pointedly, exert pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue. Kerry will undoubtedly tell the Israelis that the agreement with Iran was in Israel’s interest too. For the languishing Israeli-Palestinians talks however, which Kerry seeks to revive, the timing is ill advised.
Israelis feel a great deal less secure with Iran in possession of 19,000 centrifuges, and the relaxation of the sanctions. To ask Israel to make further territorial concessions to the Palestinians at this time is a non-starter. The release of Palestinian terrorists with the blood of innocent Israeli civilians on their hands, as a goodwill gesture just to bring Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table, was bad enough. The Gaza experience of 2005, when Israel expelled close to 9000 Jewish residence from Gaza, and facilitated Hamas’ terror attacks on southern Israel, is still fresh in the minds of most Israelis. Israelis have serious concerns about vacating strategic territories next to its population centers, which might become new targets for the Palestinians who have not foresworn the “armed struggle.” Additionally, despite signed agreements by the Palestinians which required them to stop incitement against Israel, the US has long overlooked this serious transgression – one that is a highly sensitive matter for Israelis.
Last July, when Kerry mediated the resumption of the peace negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah, a nine-month framework for the negotiations was set. In the next five months the parties to the negotiations are supposed to deal with the tough issues of borders for the Palestinian state, the future of the Jewish settlements, and the status of Jerusalem. A similar time framework was set by the US and its allies in the interim agreement with Iran. Hence, Kerry would have to extract from Israel critical concessions just when the 5+1 powers would have to decide on making the interim agreement with Iran permanent. Aaron David Miller had this to say, “The two toughest sets of decisions Israelis have to make…are roughly coming down to decision points during the same period of time. I don’t know whether it was done willfully or whether or not it just worked out this way, but … it makes it virtually certain the [Israeli] prime minister will only be able to handle one or the other.”
Just prior to Kerry’s announcement of the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on July 19, 2013, Reuters reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed that these direct negotiations will be based on the June 4, 1967 borders. The PM has vigorously denied that report. According to his aides, Netanyahu has held a principled position that Israel will not return to the 1967 lines. An Israeli official commented earlier however that Israel was ready to resume negotiations with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines and territorial swaps in exchange for Palestinian recognition of the State of Israel as a “Jewish state.”
Following the Washington talks between Palestinian chief negotiator Saab Erekat and Israel’s Tzipi Livni in late July 2013, it emerged that the US will secure $4 billion in long-term private investments to the Palestinians. Kerry apparently received a promise from Netanyahu that the Israeli government will ease restrictions on the flow of goods through the West Bank. The Palestinians it appeared have compromised on their demand for an Israeli settlement freeze. Cognizant of Obama’s 2009 demand that Israel halt settlement (actually in Jerusalem) construction, which provided Abbas with an excuse to bolt direct negotiations with Israel, Kerry urged Obama not to demand that Israel halt construction as a precondition. Kerry also insisted that the negotiations remain secret; otherwise leaks might jeopardize politically both Abbas and Netanyahu.
Whereas the Palestinians were bribed to accept the negotiations with financial incentives, Kerry used scare tactics on matters of security with Israel. He pointed out to Netanyahu that the relative security Israel currently enjoys is temporary. He probably warned that without a two-state solution Israel will face a European-led campaign of de-legitimization, and ultimately a new intifada. Kerry undoubtedly reiterated that the Palestinians may at some point have a more radical leader, and used the questionable unfavorable (to Israel) demographic trends. Kerry probably raised the turmoil following the Arab Spring, and its ramifications on Israel.
In his obsession to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace, one that has eluded his predecessors, Kerry has chosen to ignore the simple fact that Iran not the Palestinians currently pose an existential threat to Israel. And, that the US deal with Iran, which PM Netanyahu called “an historical mistake,” is far more dangerous to Israel than the threat of a Palestinian intifada. That is not to say that Israel rejects a just compromise with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. On the contrary, the people of Israel have proven time and again that they are ready to make painful sacrifices for peace. The late Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave up the entire Sinai, its oil fields, and his home in Yamit for a Cold peace with Egypt. PM Yitzhak Rabin allowed Arafat to return to the West Bank and Gaza and signed the Oslo Accords only to be rewarded with Palestinian suicide bombers and an intifada that killed over 1000 Israelis. PM Ariel Sharon destroyed Jewish settlements in Gaza and expelled its residents, in the hope for peace, and got instead a Hamas regime. PM Netanyahu has agreed to the release of 104 Palestinian terrorists with blood on their hands just to be able to talk peace with Abbas.
If Kerry’s peace initiative is to succeed, he must focus his energies on Palestinian compliance to end the anti-Jewish incitement. The Palestinian people must be made to recognize Israel as the Jewish State, with more than just an obligatory statement by Abbas. Reason requires that the Palestinian state should be demilitarized, but reality assures otherwise. Kerry’s obsession notwithstanding, a real Israeli-Palestinian peace must await better times.
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