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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 […]

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, 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 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.