For nine months Secretary of State John Kerry shepherded talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Along the way he let it slip that if talks failed Israel could face a third intifada, further isolation, or international opprobrium. Of course he didn’t want to sound like a bully so he also let everyone know that he was concerned about Israel’s future. Now the peace process is suspended and Fatah has embraced Hamas and John Kerry’s staff have their long knives out for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In interviews with Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, unnamed American officials ripped Israel’s government.
“The negotiations had to start with a decision to freeze settlement construction. We thought that we couldn’t achieve that because of the current makeup of the Israeli government, so we gave up. We didn’t realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government. We didn’t realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.
“There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.
And there was this:
“I guess we need another intifada to create the circumstances that would allow progress.
“20 years after the Oslo Accords, new game rules and facts on the ground were created that are deeply entrenched. This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very convenient for Israel.”
Those nasty statements from Kerry then, weren’t careless slips, but expressions of deeply held beliefs. Rather undiplomatic of him. I know that Barnea’s interlocutor is referring to Israel when he mentions “new game rules and facts on the ground.” This is one of the frustrating aspects of the peace process. There are plenty of new facts on the ground for the Palestinians, but they’re ignored. However dysfunctional, there is now a Palestinian Authority with jurisdiction over the vast majority of Palestinians in the West Bank. But whatever the Palestinians have gained it has come at a great cost to Israel. Withdrawals from the West Bank and later Gaza were followed by increases in terror. Despite the fact that the Palestinians are closer to having a state than they were twenty years ago, Israel is, in some circles, criticized even more harshly than it was then.
And the Palestinians have done little or nothing for their gains. The truth is the opposite of Barnea’s source, the peace process has been difficult for Israel and convenient for the Palestinians.
Though Kerry and the State Department are keen to blame Israel and the Netanyahu government for the failure of the peace talks, the failure is mostly of their own making. Alexander Joffee points out a number of the mistakes that the Americans made in Why [Israeli-Palestinian] Negotiations Collapsed. One of the chief American mistakes was not appreciating the importance of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is, for Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, if not the majority of Palestinians, a declaration that Jews have historic rights as a nation and a people, not simply a religion. Such a declaration would end the conflict once and for all by mandating that a Jewish nation-state may stand alongside a Palestinian state. And for those reasons it was out of the question.
The American habit of seeing Israel as a Jewish state is comforting, but the inability to understand that Palestinians refuse to do so out of religious convictions that Jews are a religion, not a people entitled to sovereignty in their historic homeland, is absurd. If the Arab-Israeli conflict has a “root cause,” this is it. But American blindness is not surprising, since the religious context of international affairs has never been well-understood by American policymakers, and has, since 9/11, been deliberately obfuscated, denied, and pushed far to the background.
The negotiations spearheaded by Kerry were doomed to fail because of the refusal of the Palestinians to make any compromises, and the State Department’s ignorance of the environment in which it was operating. Having the dagger in Bibi’s back may make Kerry and co. feel better but it won’t bring peace.
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