Whatever attempts were made to keep talks between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority (PA) limping on past the April 29 deadline, imposed by the United States, time is now running out on the deceptively named peace process. If the talks fail, as they surely will, the Obama administration must conjure up an escape route to avoid a political crisis. This will not be an easy feat, even though, unlike past presidents, Obama was particularly cautious not to fall into the trap of hyped expectations.
Chances are the Americans – like everyone else –knew well that peace under the current circumstances would simply be unattainable. Even if Israel’s coalition government were to change, it is difficult to see any balance of forces within the country’s current political establishment that would accept a deal, which would undo its territorial expansion, annexation of borders, land confiscation, control of holy sites, and entire panoply of discriminatory laws and practices within Israel.
For Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies among the right, far-right, and ultranationalists, Palestinians need to be crammed in disjointed communities, separated from each other by walls, Jewish settlements, Jewish-only bypass roads, checkpoints, and security fences, and subjected to a large concentration of Israeli military forces including permanent Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. While politicians have tirelessly spoken of peace, this is the ‘vision’ Israelis have had in mind since the 1967 war – the final conquest of all of historic Palestine and occupation of Arab lands.
Palestinians are paying the price for these and other earlier Israeli visions. Vladimir Jabotinsky’s ‘Iron Wall’ of 1923 was coupled with the Allon plan, named after Yigal Allon, a former general and minister in the Israeli government, who had the task of drawing up an Israeli design for the newly conquered Palestinian territories in 1967. Not only would it make no sense for a Zionist leader like Netanyahu – backed by one of the most rightwing governments in Israeli history – to bargain with Palestinians on what he considers to be Eretz Yisrael – Greater Israel or the Whole Land of Israel – he has also shown no desire to reach an agreement that would provide Palestinians with any of their basic demands, true sovereignty notwithstanding.
It is implausible the Americans were unaware of Israel’s lack of interest in the whole undertaking. For one, Naftali Bennett – Israel’s minister of economy and the head of the rightwing political party the Jewish Home – is constantly reminding the United States that he is simply not interested in peacemaking efforts. The Americans persist, however, for reasons that are hardly related to peace or justice.
Previous US administrations suffered unmitigated failures in the past as they invested time, effort, resources, and reputation, to an even greater extent than Obama, in order to broker an agreement. There are the familiar explanations about why they failed, including force exerted by the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, which remains strong despite splits and setbacks. The lobby maintains its grip on Congress in all matters related to Israel and Israeli interests. Due in large part to this lobbying, the US position is itself the strongest obstacle to peace, as the Americans have consistently approached Palestinian demands, rights, and grievances largely from an Israeli security perspective, even if they differ with the Israelis on matters relating to narratives and history.
Preparing for the foreseeable failure, US Secretary of State John Kerry remained secretive about his plans for the latest round of talks, leaving analysts in suspense over what would be discussed between Mahmoud Abbas’s negotiators and the Israeli government. From the very start, Kerry downgraded expectations. But the secrecy did not last for long. According to Palestinian sources cited in al-Quds newspaper, the most widely read Palestinian daily, PA president Abbas pulled out of a meeting with Kerry in Paris in late February because Kerry’s proposal did not meet minimum Palestinian expectations.
According to the report, Kerry’s ambitious peace agenda was no more than a rehash of everything that Israel had previously tried to impose by force or diplomacy, which Palestinians had consistently rejected: reducing the Palestinian aspiration for a capital in Jerusalem to a tiny East Jerusalem neighborhood (Beit Hanina), as well as allowing Israel to keep 10 large settlement blocks built illegally on Palestinian land, aside from a land swap, which is in fact meant to accommodate Israel’s security needs. Under the Kerry plan, the Jordan Valley would not be part of any future Palestinian state, nor would international forces be allowed in the area. In other words, Israel would maintain the occupation under another name, with the PA allowed a level of autonomy over Palestinian population centers. On these terms, it is hard to understand how Kerry’s proposal meaningfully differs from current realities on the ground.
The United States well knows that no Palestinian leadership could accept such humbling conditions and survive; yet the US government continues to prolong the ‘peace process’ based largely on an agenda identical to that of Israel. The Palestinian leadership understands that Israel does not have much interest in a lasting peace agreement, nor are the Americans ready to advocate their own political agenda, separate from Israel and the watchful eye of its lobby. Yet, the PA continues to play along. As for the Israelis, it is business as usual, as their officials continue to pay lip service to peace and carry on with altering realities on the ground in any way deemed consistent with their vision.
So why are the United States and the PA investing so heavily in a project which is doomed to failure?
Most commentary dealing with the latest US push for a negotiated agreement goes only as far back as President George W. Bush’s 2002 Roadmap, the Arab peace initiative earlier that same year, or the Oslo accords of 1993. What is often ignored is the fact that the ‘peace process’ is a political invention created by Henry Kissinger, who served as National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State during the Nixon Administration.
Kissinger’s idea was to co-opt the Arabs after the Israeli military victory of 1967, and the sudden expansion of Israel’s borders into various Arab countries, with full US support and reinforcement. Kissinger himself lobbied for massive US arms to Israel, which changed the course of the 1973 war, and he was the man who worked to secure Israeli gains through diplomacy thereafter.
While many are quick to conclude that the ‘peace process’ has been a historic failure, the intent behind the ‘process’ may never have been to secure a lasting peace, but rather, as Kissinger desired, to protect Israeli military gains. In this sense, it has been a splendid success. Over the years, however, the ‘peace process’ has become an American investment in the Middle East, a status quo in itself, and a reason for political relevance.
During the administration of both Bushes, father and son, the ‘peace process’ went hand in hand with the Iraq war. The Madrid Peace Talks in 1991 were initiated after the US-led war in Kuwait and Iraq, and was meant to balance out the extreme militancy that had gripped and destabilized the region. George W. Bush’s Roadmap arrived between the war on Afghanistan and a few months before the Iraq invasion. The younger Bush was heavily criticized for being a ‘war president’ and for having no peace vision. The Roadmap, which was drafted with the help of pro-Israel neoconservative elements in his administration, in consultation with the lobby and reflecting heavy amendments by the Israeli government, was W’s ‘peace’ overture. Naturally, the Roadmap failed, but to this day, Bush’s insincere drive for peace has helped maintain the peace process charade for a few years longer.
In the last four decades, the ‘peace process’ has become a diplomatic staple in the region, going hand in hand with US support for Israel and interest in energy supplies. It is an end in itself, and is infused regularly with motivations and goals that have little to do with genuine peace.
Kerry’s Peace and the Arab Spring
When a few Arab nations revolted against their dictators beginning in late 2010, Washington feared it was losing leverage in the Middle East, and rapidly so. The Iraq war was unceremoniously folding, rebranded as neither a victory nor defeat. The United States was considering other regions in the world where China was gaining ground: the Asia-Pacific, and South China Sea, among others. While Latin America was moving in a direction of its own, with an independence unheard of since the Monroe Doctrine gave the United States exclusive hegemony over the region beginning in 1823, some African nations seemed to be waking up to the fact that the Western hemisphere was not the only possible economic partner. China was quickly gaining ground in the continent, as well. And suddenly, the Middle East was slipping away in ways that neither the White House, the State Department, nor the Pentagon or various US intelligence agencies had expected or understood.
The Americans quickly tried to manipulate whatever leverage they had in the Middle East to ensure the outcome of the upheavals would not jeopardize their economic and political interests. Expectedly, they resorted to the same predictable option: the peace process. It was their tried and true platform to exert pressure, become relevant, and exercise a level of leadership. Surely neither Kerry nor Obama truly believed that justice for Palestinians was at hand, or that they were capable of doing what their predecessors had failed to achieve.
The Palestinian Authority’s Dilemma
While Israel thrives in situations where it is allowed to preach about peace, yet carry on with its colonial ambitions unhindered, the Palestinian Authority has had no choice but to play the American game. On the one hand, the Arab Spring had thus far wrought disaster for Palestinians in Syria, Egypt, and Gaza. “It is good that Palestine is not located next to Tunisia and Yemen, otherwise the Palestinians would be obliged to pay the double price of the Arab Spring,” wrote Abdalhadi Alijla. The ‘spring’ had in fact contributed to Palestinian division and political seclusion. On the other hand, the PA was itself a product of the ‘peace process.’ Its budget, relevance, and very political validation have been driven by the US-led process, which the Palestinian leadership knows full well is a farce. If the PA were to decline to participate in the American theater, they would forfeit the very basis for their existence.
Of course, the PA itself was wary, if not fearful of the potential disaster the ‘Arab Spring’ could bring about, hence Mahmoud Abbas’ call for an Arab Spring against Israel in July 2011, and former PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s statement that he was ‘willing to resign’ in response to public demands. For a while, the PA attempted to escape forward through its UN initiative to achieve international recognition for a Palestinian state. All of this allowed Abbas to win time. Then, the peace process provided another escape route, a platform for posturing about Palestinian rights and aspirations.
Now that Kerry’s deadline for a ‘framework agreement’ is approaching, all parties must be preparing for all possibilities. Ultimately, the Americans are keen on maintaining the peace process charade; the Palestinian Authority is desperate to survive; and Israel needs to expand settlements unhindered by a Palestinian uprising or unnecessary international attention. But will they succeed?