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Travels with Kerry

“Optimistic”, is what US Secretary of State John Kerry, said when he was asked about his feelings regarding the outcome of the negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And that was about all he wanted to share after his return from the seventh trip to the Middle East.

Few listeners were surprised. As long as 47 years, all the American negotiators thus far have been optimistic upon their return from the area –until they all finally gave up. Ever since they started, all negotiations between Israel and Palestine led by the USA , have died a silent death and are now being buried at the graveyard of diplomacy.

Could this time be any different? Could it be that it is not just another American diplomat following yet again all the same moves as his predecessors had tried so many times before? Kerry’s goal is to achieve a viable Palestinian state where there is very limited room for Jewish settlements. Palestinian negotiators haven’t spoken a lot about the subject, other than it is in any way unacceptable to increase the number of Jewish settlements at all. By any means, this is also the general view of the international community. The current silence which the Palestinians have adopted could very well point at a very cautious agreeing to the path Kerry has chosen, emphasizing ‘could’.

From the other, the Israeli side, the sounds at first were consisting of a deafening clamor. According to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ‘Kerry is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession as well as a missionary urge’ –one might ask himself as to how Ya’alon considers himself to characterize the founders of the State of Israel. “The only thing that can save us would be for Kerry to win the Nobel peace Prize and hence leave us be”, Ya’alon scornfully uttered. But then again, such a remark is part of the ritual even though maybe the Israeli Minister didn’t quite put it in the right words. If his wish were to be granted, and as such the USA would let Israel be, Ya’alon would miss out on roughly nine million dollars a day on his budget – Israel, mostly Israeli defense, is still the biggest receiver of American financial aid. Therefore, what Ya’alon was actually doing, was biting the hand he’s being fed by. As such, his fellow secretaries forced him to make excuses.

Ya’alon’s unfortunate remarks seem to point at a certain despair in the Israeli Government. Also his coalition partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to find himself in a desperate place according to his recent outburst towards France, the United Kingdom and Italy. These three governments all called for the Israeli ambassador to express their complaints regarding yet another 1401 new houses that are being built for Jewish settlers in occupied territories. “This is hypocrisy,” said the Prime Minister. “The European Union calls for our ambassadors over a few houses? When is the last time European Union called for Palestinian ambassadors over the abetment of the destruction of Israel?”

Netanyahu’s comments sound a lot more like a Pavlov-reaction rather than a well thought diplomatic remark. The disputed construction of new settlements is not possible without consent and funding from the Israeli government whereas the Palestine Authority does not necessarily approve the threats and hateful calls.

Source: Cagle.com

Source: Cagle.com

Fait Accompli

Could it be that the Israeli government has run out of tricks? It all depends from which point of view one looks at things. Israelis have always been rewarded for their creation of points of no return and sabotaging the peace negotiations. It all started with the annexation of East-Jerusalem and the surroundings of this city. Followed by the continuous and factual annexations of the areas which now include the settlements; as if it is not enough, followed by annexation of yet another ninth part of the total West Bank, more precisely that part that is now being separated from Palestine by a wall; taking complete control of Gaza’s land- and sea borders; control over the Palestinian-Jordanian border; annexation of water supplies at the West Bank.

Nowadays over 450.000 Israelis live on the West Bank. All this is accomplished without consent of the helplessly divided Palestinians and without the US cutting back on their annual contribution of billions of dollars, not even indexations. Meanwhile, Israel found herself in the blind trust and support by Washington. Israel could easily ignore all United Nations Resolutions while US diplomacy granted Israel immunity.

For a brief moment things seemed to turn for the better as Barrack Obama was elected. The new American president announced that there could be no more talk of new settlements in occupied territory, nor the expansion of existing ones, not even to keep up with natural growth of those settlements. But as it turned out, when Israel kept building as if nothing had happened, the US president did not stop Netanyahu in any way. October 2009, his former minister of Foreign Affairs, Hillary Clinton, actually made compliments to the Government in Jerusalem because of ‘unheard concessions’: the Netanyahu government had decided it would ‘only’ build 3000 houses on the West Bank. So, everything seemed to be its same old self again.

When the news came out that the recently appointed American Secretary of State John Kerry would personally oversee a new round of negotiations, Israel reacted as usual: with a gesture of goodwill but at no cost. A small group of 26 long term convicted Palestinians were being released. These men were all of middle age and did no longer pose a clear danger. To show the world how big a sacrifice Israel had made was clearly stated by Israeli people, yet mostly out of the settlements.

Immediately after the release of these men, Netanyahu’s government announced the building of 1400 new houses in occupied territory. Of course, this was unacceptable for the Palestinians, yet this time they were smart enough to not let negotiations run into deadlock. Kerry described the Israeli announcement ‘not very helpful’. Backstage he started to lift the pressure. It is likely that the gesture coming out of Paris, Rome, and London by summoning the Israeli ambassadors, was coordinated with Washington.

Despite all this, Netanyahu continued as ever the path he had chosen. He launched yet another proposition of which he knew it would be unacceptable for the Palestinians. At first, Palestinians were expected to acknowledge ‘The Jewish character’ of Israel, he said, before any serious peace talks could take place. What this means exactly can be interpreted in many ways. ‘Jewish’ in a religious sense is by no means applicable to the majority of Israel. Alas the other side has no room for such nuances. The 1.5 million Palestinians living inside the Israel of pre-1967 borders are being treated as second-class civilians. By acknowledging the State’s ‘Jewish character’ this situation would most likely be perpetuated.

As to how Netanyahu’s demand to acknowledge the Jewish character of the state might turn out in real life, he recently experienced within his own surroundings. At the World Economic Forum held in Davos, he proudly informed his Norwegian colleague Erna Solberg that his son has a Norwegian girlfriend who studies in Israel. Norwegian newspapers ran the story and shortly after, Netanyahu could read in the Jerusalem Post that his coalition partners of the orthodox Shas party considered his son’s girlfriend to be a huge problem and urged him to show ‘national responsibility’. As it turns out, the girlfriend is not Jewish. The right hand wing of his coalition demanded that the Prime Minister would forbid his son to date this girl, “otherwise your grandchildren wouldn’t be Jewish.” The only solution would be for the girlfriend to convert to Judaism – at least according to these followers of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Of course this is nothing more than a fait divers, but it just comes to show how a moralist can dig himself into a hole instead of the other.

Lobby

Negotiations now threatened to end up where Ya’alon and Netanyahu like to see them: on the long run. And they would remain as such, unless the Americans would change their position towards Israel. That could only happen if internal pressure on the US Congress to unconditionally support the right-wing Israeli government would crumble; primarily, the right-wing Protestant Christians and the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Although they represent by no means the majority of the voters, their influence can be significant in many districts due to their financial contributions to the candidates, which can make the difference. And even if it is too soon to tell, there is a slight shift to be seen. The U.S. policy of boycotting and sanctioning Iran, a profound wish of Israel, has been abandoned by President Obama. Even despite heavy protests of the powerful AIPAC and the Israeli government. For the first time in 33 years this group, which influence only the gun-lobby National Riffle Association can match up to, didn’t get her way.

Furthermore, yet again a group of influential liberal American Jews, amongst them journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem as well as writer and professor Peter Beinart have distanced themselves from AIPAC. “AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hardline government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us,” is what the group wrote in an open letter. So it appears that AIPAC for whatever reason is losing much of its effectiveness.

Boycott

That is why Kerry could go unpunished when in Davos he warned the Israeli government for the effects of an economic boycott, if negotiations would not lead to good results before April. “You see for Israel there’s an increasing delegitimisation campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things,” Kerry said, according to The Guardian. “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100%, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”

It’s galling that in a piece on the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society in response to Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights, Jodi Rudoren frames her story in terms of B.D.S. echoing the anti-Semitic boycotts of Nazi Germany, quoting several Israelis harshly critical of B.D.S. and just one Palestinian supporter. Ms. Rudoren even seems to endorse allegations that B.D.S. is anti-Semitic and directed at Jews rather than Israel and Israelis, writing, “Avoiding a coffee shop because you don’t like the way the boss treats his employees is voting with your wallet; doing so because the boss is Jewish — or black or female or gay — is discrimination.” Contrary to what Ms. Rudoren and the quoted B.D.S. critics suggest, the movement does not target Jews, individually or collectively, and rejects all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism. B.D.S. is, in fact, a legal, moral and inclusive movement struggling against the discriminatory policies of a country that defines itself in religiously exclusive terms, and that seeks to deny Palestinians the most basic rights simply because we are not Jewish.

Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, Ramallah, West Bank (member of the Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and head of the P.L.O. Department of Culture and Information).

New York Times, Opinion, februari 18, 2014

Up until now it was unthinkable that any U.S. minister would speak of a boycott of Israel, without immediately rejecting the very idea of such a boycott.

And that a boycott is impending can be seen through the growing repulsion in Europe regarding the Israeli occupation. The vast Dutch pension fund PGGM has withdrawn its investments in the five largest banks of Israel due to these policies – although it does not concern large investments, it is nonetheless a signal. Also, Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank has decided to abandon the Bank Hapoalim in Tel Aviv for ‘moral and legal reasons’. Both the Netherlands and Denmark are considered to be among the oldest allies of Israel.

The Israeli government has a difficult time getting used to the new American attitude. Netanyahu spoke of a boycott as ’immoral and unjust‘, without literally naming Kerry. His Minister of Intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, actually did and called the warning of the American secretary ‘offensive, unfair and insufferable’. Also Naftali Bennet, the Minister of Economy, who is an outspoken supporter of the settlements, thinks a boycott is ‘anti-Semitic’. Only one person, Tzipi Livni, leader of the Israeli negotiation delegation took sides with Kerry. She emphasized that Kerry’s main concern is the future of Israel.

A boycott has serious consequences. Even a partial boycott that would downsize Israel’s export to Europe by 20 percent would cost the nation five billion dollars a year and thousands of jobs. “A boycott will have its effect on every Israeli’s budget”, concluded Minister of Finance Yair Lapid. In a country where 23% or nearly a quarter of its population is living under the subsistence minimum (according to the CIA World fact Book) this is to be considered as a major threat, especially when one takes into mind that this subsistence level consists of no more than $ 7,50 a day.

Source: Cagle.com

Source: Cagle.com

Serious propositions

This new U.S. attitude of imperturbability has brought the negotiations in a rapid. Fear of a possible boycott combined with the deadline in April when negotiations must show results have led Netanyahu to serious talks, despite threats coming from right-wing and extreme-right wing coalition partners to leave his coalition. More serious are the threats coming from Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, leaders of parties that hold 25 of the 120 members of the Knesset. They threaten to leave the coalition if there is NO peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Circles surrounding the Israeli delegation speak of the willingness of Israel to transfer 90% of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. This would mean that 90.000 of the 460.000 Jewish settlers also transfer to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians demand 97% of the area, with full control over East-Jerusalem including the Temple Mount and the ‘right to return’ for the millions of descendants of the Palestinians that fled their country.

In the Israeli proposition moreover, the majority of the inhabitants of the settlements would continue to live in Israel. Israel would keep the major “settlement bloc” areas with a majority-Israeli population, including the Ariel bloc, Gush Etzion, Maaleh Adumim, and the towns of Beit El and Karnei Shomron along with surrounding communities.

Also the Palestinians are prepared to give in. In an interview with The New York Times, president Mahmoud Abbas said, that as far as he is concerned, the Israeli troops could continue their presence on the West Bank for another five years. After that period they could be replaced by NATO-units under American leadership, not only to prevent shots being fired from Palestinian territory into Israel as is happening now on a regular basis from Gaza, but also to prevent terrorists to enter through the Jordan Valley. Nowadays, this strip along the border river is off limits to Palestinians. It is full of sensors, watch-towers, and hideouts for tanks. Israel wants to stay there for another forty years after any peace agreement – which means indefinitely. But in Davos, Kerry said all Israeli troops must eventually leave a Palestinian State. Therefore, the Palestinian proposal could mean a breakthrough.

From Abbas’ point of view, settlers do not immediately have to leave the country. They can remain for a number of years before choosing to either move to Israel or obtain a Palestine residence permit.

So here is why there is room for Kerry’s optimism. Even though with this sort of statement, one always has to be careful.

UPDATE | March 5th 2014

Netanyahu in Washington

There was that Arabian diplomat who scorned: “Till now the Israeli government was allowed to behave like a spoiled child. But Israel has grown up, it is a child no more. Well then, let it behave like a responsible grown-up and we could welcome it as a respected member of the world community.”

It seems that the American president has used words to that effect in his conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the privacy of the Oval Office.

Mr. Netanyahu is in the US and will give his ritual speech on the annual AIPAC-Congress. During the press conference in the White House he was as predictable as ever – as was Mr. Obama. “We do not have a closer friend or ally than Israel and the bond between our two countries and our two peoples in unbreakable,” said the president. Such words are only said when doubt is raising about the connection between countries. On press conferences of real friends, as for example the Germans and the French, one never hears that kind of tales from political leaders.

“I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu has approached the negotiations [with the Palestinians] with a level of seriousness and commitment that reflects his leadership,” said the president. That’s not necessarily a compliment. Until now the president maintains his objective. “It’s my belief that ultimately it is still possible to create two states, a Jewish state of Israel and a state of Palestine, in which people are living side by side in peace and security,” he said. “But it’s difficult and it requires compromise on all sides. (…) The timeframe that we have set up for completing these negotiations is coming near and some tough decisions are going to have to be made.”

Let’s wait and see.

Frans Peeters

Frans Peeters

Frans Peeters is senior editor at IQNA. Previously he was editor at the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland and foreign editor and military reporter at the Dutch daily Het Parool. He published Gezworen Vrienden, het geheime bondgenootschap tussen Nederland en Israël (Sworn Friends, the Secret Alliance between the Netherlands and Israel).

 


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