John Kerry’s Doomed Peace Process


(The World Wants a Real Deal / Flickr)

Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest foray into Middle East negotiations should be called the Einstein peace process. Doing the same thing over and over again and still expecting different results is the great scientist’s definition of insanity. This time around, indications are that Kerry actually believes, all evidence to the contrary aside, that this latest iteration of the decades-old industry known as the “peace process” might really succeed. But unfortunately for Kerry, his political calculations are about to run aground on the unforgiving shoals of political reality.

Whatever Kerry’s beliefs, the timing of this latest version of the talks clearly has a lot to do with the crises erupting across the Middle East region. The escalating civil and regional war in Syria, the growing sectarian and religious-secular divides exploding across the region, and even the Pentagon-backed Egyptian military’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood all reflect broader U.S. weakness and failures in the Middle East. The inability of the U.S. to respond strategically to those challenges is certainly part of why plunging back into Israel-Palestine talks, however repetitive of earlier failures, might have seemed a useful move – for distraction, for reassurance of Israel’s backers, for reassertion of a weakened empire’s fading but still extant power.

But despite all those reasons, these talks are doomed to the same failure as the 22 years of failed diplomacy that precedes them.
Part of the problem lies squarely in Kerry’s stated U.S. goal for the talks: “ending the conflict, ending the claims.” Not ending the occupation, not ending the siege of Gaza, not ending the decades of dispossession and exile of Palestinian refugees. Only ending the tension, the dispute – regardless of which version of current reality becomes the officially agreed upon final status. Then, in Kerry’s world, all Palestinian claims will disappear, and the Palestinians, even if their internationally recognized rights remain out of reach, will smile, applaud their brave leaders, and politely agree to suck it up. (Future Israeli claims will not have to end, of course, because Israeli claims are about “security,” inherently legitimate and non-negotiable, while Palestinian claims – to self-determination, real sovereignty, equality, return – are simply political and up for grabs.)

The appointment of Martin Indyk as U.S. envoy to the talks is a further indication that no one intends to change the framework of the last 22 years of failed U.S.-led diplomacy. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, former deputy research director of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, and co-founder of the AIPAC-linked Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been central to U.S.-controlled Israel-Palestine diplomacy for years. (In recent years it has become common to see Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller and others responsible for the 22 years of failed U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East relying on their “veteran” status as a credential for continuing their careers.)

This round, like those before, will ignore international law, and instead be based on accepting the current disparity of power between occupied and occupier. The pro-Israel U.S. arbiter will determine the Israeli positions and Israeli-proposed “compromises” to be “reasonable.” Israel will continue to build and expand settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank based on the thousands of permits already in place, while likely offering some kind of short-term partial slowdown in granting some number of new permits – and that will be called a major compromise. More than 600,000 Israeli settlers will continue to live in huge city-sized Jews-only settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the talks will be rooted in the understanding that in any final arrangement Israel will be allowed to keep all the major settlement blocs, the aquifers, and 80 percent or more of the settlers right where they are.

Secretary Kerry announced proudly that this round of talks is different – based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. But he slid over the small U.S.- and Israeli-imposed “adjustment” to that plan, which stripped it of its potential value. The plan originally offered Arab states’ normalization with Israel only after “full” withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and a just solution to the refugee problem based on UN resolution 194 guaranteeing their right of return. Kerry’s new version ignores the refugees (at least so far) and adopts the U.S.-Israeli language on borders (always said as one word) of 1967-borders-with-swaps. Those land “swaps,” of course, mean Israel gets to keep all its settlement cities, most of its illegal settlers, and virtually all the Palestinian water sources, while the Palestinians will be offered some undeveloped desert land abutting Gaza, or perhaps a proposal to place Palestinian-majority cities inside Israel, such as Nazareth, under the jurisdiction of the to-be-created Palestinian “state.” (There is likely to be no compromise even discussed on Gaza – Israel’s siege will remain, strengthened by Egypt’s new post-coup government sealing tunnels and tightening the closure of the Egypt-Gaza crossing at Rafah – and the Palestinian Authority diplomats are not likely to make Gaza a major part of their negotiating strategy.)

Palestinians, of course, will be expected to accept Israel’s “reasonable” compromises as if both sides, occupied and occupier, have the same obligations under international law. (Oh right, international law doesn’t have a role here.) The price, if Palestinians reject any of Israel’s oh-so-reasonable proposals, will be U.S. and perhaps global opprobrium for blocking peace. Right now some developing countries (South Africa and Brazil among them) are hinting at somewhat more independent positions towards Israel-Palestine. The European Union’s new restrictions on funding settlement entities, made public just before Kerry’s announcement of the new talks and Israel’s acceptance of them, is particularly important, reflecting the impact of even mild sanctions on Tel Aviv. But while the civil society movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) continues to build, it remains unclear how the governments tentatively backing away from U.S. positions would respond to the collapse of the U.S.-controlled talks, especially if the U.S. claim is that the failure is the Palestinians’ fault.

Israeli violations of international law, the Geneva Conventions, and UN resolutions remain. The U.S. does not set an end to those violations as a goal of these peace talks – let alone as a precondition. If it did, Israel would have to end its occupation of the 1967 territories and recognize the Palestinians’ right of return unilaterally – ending violations shouldn’t require negotiations. That’s why, ultimately, these talks will fail. Until negotiations are based not on U.S. support for Israeli power but on international law, human rights, and equality for all, the “peace process,” including this latest Einstein Edition, will continue to fail.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

  • goedel

    Ms Bennis knows that the powerful do not want international law or any other but their own, according to Thucydides 2500 years ago. Our Constitution was written to limit power through the mutual checks of three branches of government. What was not accounted for was party loyalty, which supersedes institutional loyalty. Thus, despotic presidents are impeached only when the despot and the congress are of different parties.

    President Obama is not only disloyal to the Constitution he swore to defend but is also highly arrogant. He spends the nation’s wealth and prestige to have his way even when the issue is only a matter of whose will shall prevail. It is not reasonable for the US to jeopardize relations with the Russian Federation over the Snowden asylum issue. It is not reasonable for the US to harm Afghans and Americans in order to save face in that country or in Iraq. War with Iran is another unreasonable choice. A nuclear free middle east is the sane choice. Obama-Kerry just want to have their way no matter what.

    International law means nothing to our leaders.

    • dubinsky

      international law is of limited value to everyone.

      and international law SHOULD mean little to our government as our officials are bound by our national laws….. and only as much international law as we have accepted.

      • goedel

        As a nationalist, you may think so, but that is not the issue. Obama have violated international law that we have accepted by treaty and thus made our law.

        • dubinsky

          what law?

        • Michael_Greenwald

          Frankly, Obama and the authoritarian state have violated so many constitutional laws ignoring international law is just a fly-spec on the wall.

  • dubinsky

    Bennis is kinda fulla swamp gas and not much else.

  • Michael_Greenwald

    Using words like “occupation” and “siege of Gaza” make Ms. Bennis’ bias clear and thereby diminishes the authority of her comments. Her comments about “Israeli violations of international law, the Geneva Conventions, and UN resolutions” are a further give-away. Really, Foreign Policy in Focus should have called this article “opinion.” Doesn’t anyone there vet these articles?

    In reality the so-called negotiations are doomed for several reasons. The Palestinians are divided. Hamas can squelch any deal–and will. Where is the new Arafat, the new leader who has the status to push the unruly bunch of furious people to a compromise? Answer–ain’t none. Who is the knight in shining armor to lead the Palestinians to the promised land? Abu Mazen? He’s a one-man band no-one respects. Also, where are the wealthy Arab nations that could get behind this deal and lend credibility and support? Answer-ain’t none. Where are the big international donors who will have to support the new state if it happens? Answer: ain’t none. EU? Noble talk, do nothing. Too many Arab states on fire, not enough firemen.

    Most of all, the psychology of the Palestinians is not for peace. The keep on saying “Palestine from the desert to the sea, even if it takes a thousand years.” They have already launched the third, rock-throwing intifada using child soldiers. And they keep calling for justice, not understanding that they can have a settlement but not justice. There is is no justice after 65 years of war.

    Mr. Kerry is a smart man. He knows the risks of failure far outweigh the potential of success, which is why I cannot understand this move. Mazen does not have the power or stature to make the hard decisions. When he fails he will look weak. if he tries to strengthen his hand by further harassing Israel in the world court they will cut off his cash and take their chances with the next guy. Everyone is sick of him, most of all the palestinians.

    A decade will go bye and all that land ail become golf courses, condos and malls–owned by Israelis. People seem to think it is the Israeli government and the IDF who control things. Nonsense! It is the developers. And who ever stopped them? The status quo, bad as it is is less bad than failure.

    • david ascher

      I seem to recall Avigdor Lieberman, who was the deputy prime minister at the time, saying some pretty nasty things about Palestinians as well as saying that they should all be forced to leave so Israel could expand its territory from the River Jordan to the Sea. Although he is not currently in the cabinet, his party maintains enough seats to disrupt any government plans.

      You are correct that Kerry is doomed to fail, but you seem to think that is simply because the Palestinians don’t want peace or justice. The Israeli’s want peace … a peace obtained by elimination of the Palestinians from “Eretz Israel”. The US wants peace – anything to make the conflict go away. The US just wants Israel to be left alone so it can continue to function as the US ‘best friend’ in the Mideast – a best friend with some ‘issues’ that make the friend somewhat erratic and dangerous.

      Kerry and his chosen envoys have nothing to offer other than “why don’t you Palestinians play nice; if you stop making noise maybe we can give you some money to stay where you are”.

      Bennis is absolutely correct in her analysis. The US is a reliable arbiter in this dispute.

      • Michael_Greenwald

        Part of “the facts on the ground” as it is called is that the state of Israel was created not as a child of the UN but the result of winning their wars. In fact, it is only when the US weights in that the UN ever does anything. Of course we all know that war is how almost all the states of the world were created. That was how the USA was created! The UN and world court are a concept of world government, a nice idea that has not caught on. So, the world gives lip service to those organizations but also feels free to ignore them.

        In the case of Israel, the people who keep talking about UN resolutions are always people who want to see Israel damaged or destroyed. They tend to ignore the fact that Israel is engaged in an asymmetric war with the Arabs and in war one does ones best to vanquish the enemy.

        These people get mad because Israel is so much better at defending itself than the Arabs. They seem to think of war as a sort of basketball game where “rules” apply and it is unfair to have an advantage. I have never heard of a war like that. But when people like Ms. Bennis try to pretend they are offering “news” and use the code words I mentioned, they diminish their authority. They should be writing down here, in the email column like us little people.

  • Paul

    Agreed- And, I would argue , the only just settlement is a one -state
    solution which takes into account the return of Palestinians and non
    segregation of citizens based on religious persuasion