Who knows what we will learn Saturday about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. As I write this on Friday morning, it appears that the Palestinian leadership has asked him for more clarifications on the Israeli position, to learn whether talks could resume on the basis of the 1967 borders that could be modified with appropriate land swaps. I am astounded that 46 years after the June 1967 war that saw Israel occupy the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, the two sides still cannot agree on the premise that a permanent peace agreement should be negotiated on the basis of ending the conflict and returning to the 1967 borders, with any agreed modifications. I have not given up hope that a negotiated peace can one day be achieved, but I pretty much have given up hope that it can be attained through negotiations mediated by the United States.
I say this for several reasons. The final points that must be agreed for negotiations to start are so central to the entire peacemaking process – borders, recognition, refugees, Jerusalem – that an inability even to begin discussions bodes ill for the prospects of reaching an agreement. Also, the proposed solutions to bridging the gaps between the two sides are so deeply embellished by make-believe romanticism and evading reality that they only postpone the deal-breaking disagreements to come – just kicking the can down the road, in effect.
For example, the idea that the Palestinians will not demand a publicly announced settlement freeze on the part of the Israelis and instead accept the existing slowdown in new construction belongs to the fantasy world of diplomacy. In this world, Palestinians make believe Israeli settlements are stopping and Israelis make believe the Palestinians will forever keep talking while settlement building and annexation of Palestinian lands continue.
The Israeli demand that Palestinians not join the International Criminal Court for the foreseeable future as the price for restarting negotiations is another sign of stalling. For if the Palestinians accept this demand and then get nothing from the talks, they will apply to join the ICC and ask for indictments of Israel for its various illegal and criminal activities in the occupied territories.
Kerry’s approach to prodding both sides to resume negotiations is laudable, and must be supported and encouraged every time he flies to the region to seek progress. But his strategy for moving forward is, well, a pig with lipstick – an ugly essence beautified with superficial surface cosmetics. It is impossible to expect both sides under their current leadership to make major substantive concessions on core issues simply in order to get to the negotiating table, where they will not be able to agree on a final accord that addresses the big sticker items of land, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem.
The strategy now being used seeks to formulate vague agreements simply to resume negotiations, but it will not work because the imprecision of positions on settlements, borders or mutual recognition necessary to restart the talks only cements the inability of both sides to achieve a permanent, comprehensive agreement.
Two significant new developments in the past week are worth noting, though. President Barack Obama phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday to discuss assorted issues, including negotiations to resume peace talks. This was a rare sign of Obama’s direct, public support for Kerry’s efforts, which could indicate a new urgency in Washington on trying to make his mission succeed. The motivation, nature, longevity and intensity of Obama’s direct involvement in this issue are all unknown, but they will be determining factors in whether Kerry sinks or swims.
The other important development was the European Union’s instructions to its member states to forbid dealings with institutions or organizations based in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. This is highly significant and praiseworthy, but also unusual for the EU that has had such a hard time in recent years reaching agreement among all its members on a common position toward Israeli occupation and colonization.
These two new developments could suggest that Western patience with Israel is running thin, but we will have to wait and see how the EU and the U.S. react when Israel and its attack dogs in Western capitals start their counter-offensives to roll back these two new moves. It looks like we are at the same place we were in January – Kerry is personally carrying out an impressive diplomatic initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but using failed approaches that are unlikely to succeed.
We are also more or less at the same place we were 46 years ago: Israel is reluctant to give up its conquered territories and the Palestinians, and the world, insist that the territories must revert to their Palestinian owners through a negotiated agreement that also recognizes Israeli security within the pre-1967 borders.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.