Prospects for the peace talks – 2
New tactics employed by US Secretary of State John Kerry on his recent tour of the Middle East have caused divisions and consternation among the Palestinians, writes Nicola Nasser
July 23, 2013
A new tactic by US Secretary of State John Kerry is causing a split within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) ranks regarding further talks with Israel. Kerry is apparently using the Arab League’s Follow-Up Committee on the Arab Peace Initiative (FCAPI) to bully the Palestinians into accepting new ground rules for the talks to which they had objected in the past.
In his sixth tour of the region as secretary of state, Kerry did something unusual. Instead of visiting Israel, as he always does, he left it out of his itinerary, deciding instead to hold most of the talks in the Jordanian capital Amman. While there, he conferred with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as well as members of the FCAPI. As the talks progressed, it became clear that Kerry was no longer focussing on Israel, the country that has torpedoed all previous attempts at peace, but on the PLO. His aim is to get the latter to offer more concessions than any they have accepted in the past.
In order to do this, Kerry wanted to get the FCAPI to accept these concessions on behalf of the Palestinians, a new tactic that may or may not be working but that so far has succeeded in causing divisions and widespread consternation in Palestinian circles. The tactic is not totally new, for it resonates with the manner in which US diplomats have used the Arab League to justify foreign intervention for the sake of regime change in countries such as Iraq and Libya in the past.
Speaking after a meeting with Kerry in Amman, FCAPI diplomats voiced their “great support” for Kerry’s efforts to revive the talks. Their remarks were seen as a “victory” for Kerry, said the Associated Press. It was a “success” for his diplomacy, added The New York Times. Kerry, for his part, announced that the gap was “narrowing” between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and that all that was needed now was to “iron out” a few kinks.
For the Palestinians, ironing out these kinks is going to be a quite a job, however. PLO chief negotiator Saeb Ereikat is said to have had a “stormy” meeting with the PLO leadership concerning Kerry’s proposals. The PLO, its back to the wall, is now forming a working committee to decide what to do about the talks.
All of this is unprecedented. In the past, the FCAPI used to take its cue from the Palestinians. When the Palestinians were faced with demands for concessions they were reluctant to give, they politely said they needed to consult with the FCAPI, which was a courteous way of turning down unacceptable proposals. Now the FCAPI is getting them into trouble by agreeing to concessions before the Palestinians even have time to discuss them at length.
In the absence of FCAPI support for the PLO negotiators, the latter had no option but to play along with Kerry’s proposals. On Friday, the US secretary of state declared his satisfaction with the current plans to get the Palestinians and the Israelis talking again about a “final status” deal. He has invited the PLO and Israel to send negotiators to Washington soon to work out details of the agreement. PLO senior officials told the French news agency AFP that Kerry was determined to declare the resumption of the talks before leaving the region.
US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that unless progress was made on Kerry’s sixth visit to the region, he would not be returning for more visits. If anything, this sounds like an unveiled threat aiming to put pressure on Abbas and his chief negotiator and force their cooperation.
During this round of talks, Kerry also left Abbas no chance to play for time. Instead of waiting for Abbas to go to talk with the FCAPI, Kerry brought the Arab League diplomats to Amman and had them agree to his proposals without prior consultation with the PLO.
In Amman, members of the FCAPI issued a statement saying that Kerry’s ideas for the resumption of talks were a “suitable foundation” for further negotiations. The FCAPI stamp of approval placed the PLO in a difficult position. Abbas, unable to wiggle free from this diplomatic ordeal, remained silent. But his silence, as the saying goes in Arabic, was seen as a “sign of approval”.
Yet, the situation is likely to spark resentment back home, where most of the PLO leaders are opposed to Kerry’s proposals. However, they know that a blunt rejection of these proposals may invoke an unpleasant US reaction, if not sanctions.
Abbas is waiting to give his answer following consultations with the PLO leadership. In all likelihood, the latter will have to agree, despite its deep reservations about Kerry’s proposals.
As a result of all this, the FCAPI has let down the Palestinians, and it is not the first time that this has happened. On 29 April, a Qatari-led FCAPI delegation offered Kerry what amounted to its consent to a land swap at a meeting in Washington. Critics of the FCAPI correctly noted that the step was extraordinary, for the FCAPI is not empowered to make such concessions. Only the Arab summit, which issued the Arab Peace Initiative, is entitled to make any amendment to this initiative. As a mere follow-up committee, the FCAPI had exceeded its mandate.
Israel, of course, is pleased to see the FCAPI offer concessions that the Palestinians do not seem willing to make. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister at the time, described the FCAPI statement as “good news.”
Lebanese analyst Ziad Al-Sayegh recently wrote that “after the failure of the internationalisation of the talks [through the Quartet], we are now going through a regionalisation of the talks [through the Arab League].” One symptom of this regionalisation is that the land swap, overwhelmingly rejected by the Palestinians, is now getting the Arab League’s stamp of approval.
Last Thursday, the Jordanian news agency Petra cited the Arab League chief, Nabil Al-Arabi, as saying that the “US plan concerning the peace process is based on three axes; political, economic and security-related”. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot then offered an interesting interpretation of this statement. The political axis, it said, was the resumption of talks. The security axis was going to be left to the US top brass to decide. And the economic axis would mean a lot more aid to the Palestinian Authority.
During his last tour of the region, Kerry made no reference to the Israeli settlements. Nor did he object when Israel declared plans to build 732 new settlement units in the settlement of Modi’in Illit in west Jerusalem. For him, this was not even a kink worthy of ironing out. Even worse, the FCAPI has not seemed interested in Israel’s active settlement-building programme, and it did not even mention that future talks should focus on a two-state deal based on the 1967 borders.
Last Friday, Kerry said that the best way to give the talks a chance was to keep them “private”. He declined to reveal the details of his plan as a result, and the FCAPI had nothing to say. For now, the PLO leadership is also keeping its cards close to its chest.
The writer is an Arab journalist based in Bir Zeit on the occupied West Bank.
By Uri Avnery, Palestine Chronicle
July 26 2013
When you have a conflict between two parties, the way to solve it is clear: you put them in the same room, let them thrash out their differences and emerge with a reasonable solution acceptable to both. For example, a conflict between a wolf and a lamb. Put them in the same room, let them thrash out their differences and emerge with…
Just a moment. The wolf emerges. Now where’s that lamb?
If you have a conflict between two parties who are like a wolf and a lamb, you must have a third party in the room, just to make sure that Party 1 does not have Party 2 for dinner while the talks are going on.
The balance of power between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is like that between a wolf and a lamb. In almost every respect – economic, military, political – Israel has a vast advantage. This is a fact of life. It is up to the Third Party to balance this somehow.
Can it be done? Will it be done?
I have always liked John Kerry. He radiates an air of honesty, sincerity, that seems real. His dogged efforts command respect. The announcement this week that he has at long last achieved even the first stage of talks between the parties can give some room for optimism. As Mao said: A march of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
The first question is: who will be the third person? It has been leaked [and confirmed] that the leading candidate for this delicate task is Martin Indyk, a veteran former State Department officer.
This is a problematic choice. Indyk is Jewish and very much involved in Jewish and Zionist activity. He was born in England and grew up in Australia. He served twice as US ambassador to Israel.
Right-wing Israelis object to him because he is active in left-wing Israeli institutions. He is a member of the board of the New Israel Fund, which gives financial support to moderate Israeli peace organizations and is demonized by the extreme rightists around Binyamin Netanyahu.
Palestinians may well ask whether among the 300 million US citizens there is not a single non-Jew who can manage this job. For many years now it has been the case that almost all American officials dealing with the Israeli-Arab problem have been Jews. And almost all of them later went on to be officials in Zionist think-tanks and other organizations. If the US had been called upon to referee negotiations between, say, Egypt and Ethiopia, would they have appointed an Ethiopian-American?
I have met Indyk several times, generally at diplomatic receptions (not US embassy receptions, to which I was not invited.) Once I sent him a letter connected with his name.
The story about the Indyk is well known to anyone versed in Jewish folklore. It was told by a very influential Jewish rabbi, Nachman of Braslaw (1772-1811), who has many followers even today in Israel.
Once upon a time there was this prince who suffered under the delusion that he was an Indyk (turkey in Yiddish – from the Hebrew for Indian hen. He was sitting naked under a table and eating only crumbs thrown to him. After all the doctors failed to cure him, a wise rabbi undertook the task. He stripped off his clothes, sat naked under the table and started acting like an Indyk too. Step by step he convinced the prince that an indyk may wear clothes, eat regular food and, in the end, sit at the table instead of under it. That way the prince was cured.
Some might say that this story has a direct bearing on his future job, if he is indeed chosen. Two naked Indyks are now under the table, and his job will be to get them to sit at the table and talk seriously about peace. True, the Palestinians are used to having crumbs thrown to them, but they may now demand some real food.
The chances for any peace negotiations may be assessed by the atmosphere prevailing on both sides, the terminology they use and the internal discussions they conduct. These are not very inspiring.
In Israel almost nobody uses the word “peace”. Even Tzipi Livni, who will be in charge of the negotiations on our side, talks only about a “final-status agreement” that would “put an end to the conflict”, not put an end to the occupation”. Most Israelis ignore the event altogether, believing that Netanyahu’s and Mahmoud Abbas’ sole aim is to abort the negotiations in such a way as to put the onus on the other side. Most Palestinians believe the same. Peace is definitely not in the air.
However, a poll conducted this week showed that a large majority of Israelis – 55 to 25 (or, to percentualize it, 69 to 31) – would vote in a referendum for a peace agreement achieved by the Prime Minister. I have never had any doubt about this.
The idea of holding a referendum about a peace agreement is now being advocated by the Right and resisted by the Left. I am in favor. Without a solid majority, it would in any case be almost impossible for any government to remove settlements. And I believe that any concrete agreement accepted by a credible Palestinian leadership and recommended by the US will receive a resounding “Yes” in a referendum.
Most of the experts say that Israel should not strive for an endgame agreement, but for a more modest “interim” agreement. They cite the old Jewish adage: “He who wants to catch too much catches nothing.” I beg to disagree. First, there is the saying that you cannot cross an abyss in two jumps. No stopping in the middle. We quoted this saying to Yitzhak Rabin after Oslo.
The fatal flaw of the Oslo agreement was that it was all interim. The final aim was not stated. For the Palestinians it was clear that the aim was the setting up of the State of Palestine in all the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. For the Israeli side, this was not clear at all. Absent an agreement on that, every interim step became a point of contention. If you want to go by train from Paris to Berlin, the intermediate stations are different from the ones on the way to Madrid.
Oslo gave up its poor soul somewhere along the way with the endless wrangling about the “safe passage” between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the “third withdrawal” and such.
The only way to proceed is first of all to reach an agreement on the “core issues”. This can be implemented over some time – though I would not recommend that either.
Israeli-Palestinian peace is a huge step in the history of the two peoples. If we have the courage to do it, let’s do it, for God’s sake, without lying down along the way and crying.
At the moment, the great riddle is: what has Kerry promised each side in secret?
The method seems sound. Since the two sides could not agree on anything, and each demanded that the other start negotiations “without pre-conditions” while posing a lot of pre-conditions themselves, Kerry chose a different way. It is based on a simple logic: in the American-Israeli-Palestinian triangle, almost all decisions will have to be made two-to-one. In practice, each side needs American support to get its demands accepted.
So, instead of trying to achieve the impossible – Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the basis of the negotiations – America gave each side a promise to support it on certain points.
For example, at a guess: a promise that the US will support the Palestinians on the border issue. The border will be based on the Green Line with reasonable land swaps. Also, on freezing settlements while the negotiations go on. On the other hand, the US will support Israel on the definition of Israel as a “Jewish” state and on the (non-)return of Palestinian refugees.
In the past, the US has broken such promises without blushing. For example, before the Camp David meeting, President Bill Clinton gave Yasser Arafat a solid promise that he would blame neither side for a failure. (Since the meeting was convened without the slightest preparation, failure was predictable.) After the conference, Clinton put the blame squarely – and wrongly – on Arafat, a vile act of political opportunism, designed to help his wife get elected in New York.
In spite of such experiences, Abbas put his trust in Kerry. It seems that Kerry has the gift of inspiring such trust. Let’s hope he does not squander it.
So, with or without a turkey to keep the wolf from devouring the lamb, and in spite of all the past disappointments, let’s hope that this time real negotiations get going and lead towards peace. The alternative is too dismal to contemplate.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.