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Chas Freeman on Why the Kerry Initiative Will Fail

Lost in the chaos of Egypt and horror of Syria is the ever present Israel-Palestine question, now being dealt with by John Kerry’s initiative for Israeli-Palestinian Authority talks. Of course a fair compromise peace orchestrated by American diplomatic pressure could transform the American image in much of the Arab world, where we are now pretty much despised by moderate “allies” and “radicals” alike. William Pfaff makes the point here, [1] arguing that the current turmoil makes a reset and a change of direction all the more necessary:

As for America’s assumed continuing relevance to the Islamic world, the advice from a leading American foreign policy figure in a New York Times op-ed Monday was that “the United States should do what it can to shepherd the arrival of liberal democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. But the best way to do that is to go slow and help the region’s states build functioning and responsible governments. Democracy can wait.” What sound advice! Just what Egyptians, Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Tunisians, Lebanese, and the others were waiting to hear from the United States.

President Obama could then remain on the golf course, or play with the new puppy, and the nineteen American diplomatic missions across the Islamic world that closed during the past two weeks in order to protect the United States and its allies from new Islamic assaults (or protect the president from the Republicans – take your choice), might be left closed.

But critics are expected to propose solutions. I have a radical one, which I offer in full confidence that it will universally be regarded as frivolous and certainly not be adopted. It changes the scene of action to Israel-Palestine.

I propose that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry inform Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must agree within a defined and brief period to that two-state settlement with the Palestinians whose inevitable terms have long ago been negotiated, and are currently understood by both sides, as by every observer and bystander, except the most fanatical.

These terms are territorial partition and such population transfers as are necessary to restore slightly modified 1967 frontiers, with Jerusalem a dual capital; acknowledgement by the new Palestinian state of Israel’s Jewish character; and only symbolic Palestinian right of return.

Unless Prime Minister Netanyahu and his electorate agree to this within the set period, the White House would endorse a Palestinian claim to the prosecution in international courts of Israel’s continuing occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory as crimes of war under the Geneva conventions. While this proceeds, the United States would suspend the usual exercise of its UN Security Council veto on Israel’s behalf.

This, of course, would utterly transform the political situation in the Middle East, and bewilder the Arabs, leaving them with their own problems of Syrian revolutionary civil war, sectarian violence in Iraq as well as war in Syria between Shias and Sunnis, threatening to sweep into Lebanon, and impending crises in Libya and Tunisia. But who can solve these problems if not the Arabs themselves? Certainly not the United States, as has been amply demonstrated.

My proposal would embitter U.S.-Israel relations by its substance and by treating Mr. Netanyahu in the curt and disdainful way in which he is accustomed to treat American leaders, but in this case would be to the long-term benefit and security of the Israeli nation and of the United States itself.

Unfortunately, that is almost certainly not where the Kerry sponsored talks are headed. Instead leaders of a politically weak Palestinian Authority, lacking in political charisma or legitimacy, have had their arms twisted to sit down with Israel and make concessions. Surely there will be trade-offs, ample opportunities for selected Palestinian luminaries to cash in on the capitalist windfalls that “peace” would bring. And if the talks somehow fail because of Palestinian insistence on a real state with control of its own borders and natural resources, the full weight of American and Israeli propaganda will be brought to bear on the Palestinians for “once again” missing an opportunity.

Recently an Arab newspaper published [2] purportedly leaked documents indicating what the Palestinian Authority has agreed to already. It’s hard to discern whether the leak is accurate, but it asserts that in order to sit down for talks, the PA has already agreed to accept Israel’s territorial grabs around Jerusalem, and the seizure of the water reserves under the Israeli side of the “separation wall” and beneath the large settlements planned and sited so as to deny a Palestinian state’s contiguity. Many Palestinians would call the enclaves they would receive around the large Israeli settlements and connecting infrastructure “bantustans” and they would be right.

Perhaps this kind of negotiating result is inevitable between a party as weak as the Palestinian Authority and as strong as Israel. But it doesn’t guarantee peace so much as oppression of the Palestinians under a modified guise. Moreover, it excludes the interests of many Palestinians with the capacity to undermine it. Former ambassador Chas Freeman shared this analysis with TAC:

It seems to me that the structure of these talks (even if it is not built on the preposterously one-sided formulas cited in Sam’s report) overlooks and violates a basic maxim of diplomacy. An agreement that excludes and fails to address the interests of those with the capacity to wreck it is no agreement at all. All Palestine has now been divided into four parts. The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel are ignored by both the Israeli authorities and forgotten by the international community. The other three parts of Palestine are the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora Palestinians driven from their homes into residence in refugee camps and foreign countries. Of these three parts, the Palestinian Authority, which the United States has appointed to represent Palestinian interests in negotiations with Israel, and which is now talking to the government of Israel under U.S. auspices is the weakest. It lacks a popular mandate, is dependent on foreign subsidies and tax revenue collected by Israel, relies on Israel’s staunchest foreign backer to extract Israeli concessions that will permit self-determination by Palestinians, polices the Jewish state’s occupation of the West Bank and isolation of Gaza, and whines ineffectually as Israel’s colonial enterprise consumes its territory and displaces its people. The PA cannot speak for Palestinians in Gaza or in the Diaspora, neither of whom would be bound by any agreement it might reach with Israel.

In January 2006, Hamas gained a popular mandate to govern all of Palestine beyond the 1967 borders of Israel. It is now besieged in Gaza by both Israel and Arab opponents of Islamist democracy. Neither Hamas nor Gazan Palestinians are represented in the so-called “peace process.” Neither will have a stake in making anything that might emerge from it work. The 7 million Palestinians who live outside their homeland have not been represented in discussions of its future since the Oslo accords created the PA. Revanchism on their part would not be cured by a deal between Israel and the PA. I don’t see how the “peace process’ Kerry has contrived is a path to peace even for the fifth or so of the Palestinians (those on the West Bank) whose future it purports to address. A peace that proposes to exclude about four-fifths of Palestinians is a fatally flawed diplomatic fraud — not, of course, the first one in this arena.

If Kerry’s goal is simply to ratify Israel’s seizure of critical Palestinian territory, while taking the steam out of the expanding civil society movements, like BDS, which oppose the Israeli occupation, then his initiative is right on track. But if his purpose is reach an accommodation that, as closely as possible, approximates a “just peace”, the signs are he is headed to failure.

On a personal note, blogging will be lighter over the next few months as I redirect my energies to a much delayed longer project.

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Comments Disabled To "Chas Freeman on Why the Kerry Initiative Will Fail"

#1 Comment By TomB On August 23, 2013 @ 7:49 am

I will never cease to be amazed at the number of people who are otherwise right-headed concerning this issue who, like William Pfaff here, go so wrong at the last moment of their analysis by advocating not only the impossible but the undesirable—for the U.S. to pressure Israel into some deal—and thereby deprive the debate of the one argument most likely to work which is for the American people to get behind the idea of us just pulling out of the whole mess and minding our own business.

Consider: As Freeman so clearly documents we have *already* so made a sham of things by artificially propping up the PA as supposed legitimate representative of the Palestinian people that even if we *did* pressure Israel to make an agreement with the PA it would mean nothing but failure, and consequently further destruction of our credibility and interests over there. Within a matter of mere months if not weeks if not days of the sort of deal they could sign the responsible PA “leaders” would be fleeing for their lives to their Switzerland bank accounts no doubt funded by us in getting them pliable and in their present positions in the first place.

And even before that, after we succeeded in strong-arming the Israeli leaders into some deal how do we strong-arm the Israeli population into agreeing with it?

And by what supernatural wisdom is it our place to be telling *either* the Palestinians or the Israelis what they should agree with in the first place?

We have been in a quagmire before named Vietnam, and we know what it took to get out: The American people just simply being presented with the option to get out, period. So all the talk by Pfaff and others about pressuring Israel or doing this or that does nothing but keep us thrashing—and thus sinking—ever deeper in the muck.

The situation now is so bad that it cannot even be said to be a tragedy anymore but a complete farce at the total expense of the U.S. For all the money and effort we have put into propping up the PA as if it really commands even a modicum of the allegiance of the entire Palestinian people we can’t even get *it* to agree to anything much. And so now we have both the PA and Israel just playing along with these “peace process” games of the sort Mr. Kerry is now conducting, both knowing it is going nowhere substantively but both involved so as to see how to further scalp something from us, Uncle Sucker. Humor elevated to the level of grotesquerie.

From the standpoint of the American interest it has become clear there is one and only one potentially successful solution left to all of this and that is for the U.S. to just simply bug out, period. Support nobody and assail nobody, period.

#2 Comment By Sheldon On August 23, 2013 @ 9:19 am

I went to the linked report and saw little there that conforms to your description of it.

#3 Comment By Clint On August 23, 2013 @ 11:16 am

Time to stop Washington Establishment Big Government from taking our force confiscated American taxpayer money and handing it over to Israelis & Palestinians.

#4 Pingback By Chas Freeman: Kerry's talks leave out 4 of 5 Palestinians On August 23, 2013 @ 11:25 am

[…] the American Conservative, Scott McConnell has published a piece offering William Pfaff's argument that the greatest effect the US could have on the Arab spring […]

#5 Comment By T. Sledge On August 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am

The problem with trying to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians is that one side sees the other as a petty, vindictive, self-righteous, mean, nasty people, and the other side looks at its adversary and sees the same thing. The longer this struggle plays out, the more and more I come to think that they are both right.

In the Americans at the best of times you have timid, gutless leadership in this area, and in Obama, you have something far short of “the best of times”. This spineless weasel (sitting in a comfy chair in the WH and picking out targets for drone strikes does not a hero make) hasn’t the guts to say on the one hand to the Palestinians “history has screwed you, and I simply don’t have the political courage to try to make it right”, nor to say to the Israelis “we in America and Europe failed you in turning a blind eye to the Nazis in the 1930s, and so we’ll let the Palestinians pay the price for that”.

It would be the honest thing to say and to do, and be done with it, rather than to revive this farce of a “peace process”.

#6 Comment By Patrick D On August 23, 2013 @ 2:13 pm


Indeed. The U.S. is grossly over-committed to the region relative to its actual, vital, national interests there. The “special relationship” with Israel and its peace process theatrics are prime examples.

The intelligent course of action would have been more constructive disengagement in the wake of the Cold War. Unfortunately, that is not how the Washington foreign policy establishment works. It always chooses the harder, more risky, and more costly way.

#7 Comment By NB On August 23, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

Pfaff states: “These terms are territorial partition and such population transfers as are necessary to restore slightly modified 1967 frontiers, with Jerusalem a dual capital; acknowledgement by the new Palestinian state of Israel’s Jewish character; and only symbolic Palestinian right of return.”
Israel already made a similar offer in the 2000 Camp David Summit (though one could certainly argue that Israel did not go far enough on agreeing to Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem), and many observers agree that those talks failed due to Arafat’s insistence on the right of return. Yet, Pfaff and McConnell imply that the failure to achieve peace is mostly Israel’s fault.

#8 Comment By Myron Hudson On August 23, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

“My proposal would embitter U.S.-Israel relations by its substance and by treating Mr. Netanyahu in the curt and disdainful way in which he is accustomed to treat American leaders…”

And this is why it will never happen. Congress itself is vociferously more supportive of Israel than it is of any of our Presidents. We are Israel’s bitch, and that’s all there is to it.

“From the standpoint of the American interest it has become clear there is one and only one potentially successful solution left to all of this and that is for the U.S. to just simply bug out, period. Support nobody and assail nobody, period.”

I agree, TomB. But our interest is clearly beside the point.

#9 Comment By Ken Hoop On August 23, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

Only symbolic right of return should be a dealbreaker anyway.

How about only a symbolic right of return for
e.g. Brooklyn Jews with marginal amounts of Semitic blood and who are either not observant or follow a “Judaism” with scant resemblance to that of the Israelites of the Bible?

#10 Comment By pabelmont On August 23, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

First commenter above suggests the USA stay out of it. I suppose that means no longer supporting Israel with money, arms, aned UNSC veto.

This would be a positive step, but is n0t enough, because it ignores the systematic despoliation of international law which USA/Israel have wrought since 1967 — the preventing (by the USA’s veto) of the UNSC from enforcing the protections of the Fourth Geneva Convention due the Palestinians (and Syrians) living under Israeli occupation (or expelled) since 1967.

What should happen under law is not entirely clear, but ignoring the law is not a choice except of the lawless.

The International Court of Justice gives a hint and also part of the answer when in 2004 it ruled that Israel must remove the wall it erected inside occupied Palestine (West Bank). The court was not asked to rule on the illegal settlements. Had it been asked there is a good chance that its answer would be (echoing UNSC Res. 465 (1980)) that Israel must remove all teh settlers and destroy or remove all the settlement buildings (and to pay damages to those whose land, water, etc., was taken for the building of these settlements).

If the UNSC demanded this of Israel — and this would require the USA to withhold its veto but would also be helped if the USA voted in favor — Israel would face the return of about 10% of its Jewish population into pre-1967 Israeli territory, mostly as homeless “refugees”. That is about 700,000 people, about the same number as the number of Palesinian refugees energetically and voluntarily created by Israel in the war of 1948.

I believe that the USA could do this if it would argue that the reasoning behind the settlements — to create bargaining chips toward peacemaking — had clearly failed and it was now time to reverse the lawlessness.

Needless to say, merely enforcing the law in this manner could go far to encorage (some would say “force”) Israel to endeavor to make a “just and lasting peace” with the Palestinians, something they’ve never done in the 46 years since 1967.

Oh well, nice idea. But as we know, the USA chooses to act as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Israel, and that precludes this idea from being implemented, at least by the USA.

#11 Comment By psgrewal On August 23, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

Okay, cynical Americans, let’s stop expecting the Israel/Palestine problem to be solved during one presidential administration. I found it intriguing that Netanyahu reached out to Tzipi Livni in this process. Netanyahu is a man who understood the ramifications of Romney’s loss to Obama (making him smarter than most Republicans). I think he may want to put the peace process on a workable path. Let’s hope Israel/Palestine succeeds for once! 🙂

#12 Comment By delia ruhe On August 24, 2013 @ 12:41 am

No one will ever convince Israelis that — in accordance with current international law — they can’t just grab someone else’s country, as the White Man did in North America and Australia, kill off those who resist, and force the rest to either emigrate or agree to live on reservations without a source of water. Kerry’s effort is as pointless as that of every previous effort sponsored by America. Indeed, every such effort has really been arranged to enable the Israelis in fulfilling their dream of Greater Israel.

#13 Comment By Sadly On August 24, 2013 @ 9:30 am

The US has no credibility as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians anymore. We blew it, especially under the last three presidents, and it will take generations to restore any credibility.

#14 Comment By Michael N Moore On August 24, 2013 @ 9:33 am

There appear to be two possibilities here:

One is that the peace talks are a sham brought about by opportunism by all parties.

The second is that Israel is looking to “tilt” towards the Sunni alliance with the Saudis against Iran. Their obstacle to this arrangement is their own “settlers” and the displaced Muslims.

Israel’s support for the settlers and for the counterproductive Iraq invasion have exacerbated its problems in this regard. Iraq had become a subsidiary of Iran and anyone who makes peace may be assassinated by settler radicals extracting their “price tag”,

#15 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

Great piece. I would be ver yhappy indeed if John Kerry would simply hold a press conference with an enormous map of Israel/Palestine as the backdrop. And for Kerry to show in the Green Line. And for Kerry to say this is the border, unless both sides agree to make some changes to it.

#16 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

NB – – Arafat acknowledged, privately, in early 1970s that Palestinians would have to accept Israel within its “1967” borders.

#17 Comment By King Abdirahman Mohamed Farah Mohamoud. On August 24, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

The first king of modern Somali republic kingdom and Riyad saidi-arabia and all Arab league member countries that has been sprung from holy mecca on 9/12/11. Says to American people and the Secretary state Kerry.by all accounts. we are a common flesh of Ibrahim,both Israelians and Arabs and Israel had to come back to Palestine and I believe this the negative impact that we inherited from the world war two as we are a Arabs. AS we had experienced a long steady peace the we were under a UN charter except for Palestinians whom were a freedom fighters of last 68 years. now the world must give us our leadership to negotiate with Palestinians and Isrealian my kingdom was being emerged in the world to resolve this problems because I can create a situation that every side feel easy to live together with one an other.Westren world can’t know this language because we are a neighbors of Palestine you have just brought Isreal into Palestinian territory but you can’t keep in peace in Palestinian territory .therefore, this is my responsibility that I want to take it as soon as possible.

#18 Comment By James Canning On August 24, 2013 @ 7:24 pm

Charles Freeman has noted the Saudis increasingly are fed up with “Washington’s failure to restrain Israeli military adventures and the occupation of Palestinian territory”. (Quoted by Jim Lobe)

#19 Comment By Bluto On August 25, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

All that’s left of the “peace process” is the annual shakedown of the American taxpayer for more billions for Israel. The Israelis don’t even bother with the courtesies anymore, responding to impotent wimps like Kerry by publicly announcing new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

With the Israelis treating us with such open contempt, it is no wonder that Mr. Assad and Gen. Sissi are now doing likewise.