Portuguese / Spanish / English

Kerry stumbles over preconditions

Despite the drums of war on the Korean Peninsula, US Secretary of State John Kerry has been busy shuttling back and forth to the Middle East. His latest visit, the third in three weeks, was to the occupied Palestinian West Bank and Israel. The stated purpose has been to restart direct negotiations between Israel and the PLO-Palestinian Authority. Any hopes of a quick resumption of talks between the parties were, however, dashed at the first hurdle. Neither side is ready to waive their preconditions.

While Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refuses to enter into any negotiations with Palestinian preconditions, he has, hypocritically, laid down his own for the Palestinians to meet. Foremost among them is that the PLO-PA must recognise Israel as a "Jewish state" and offer tangible security guarantees.

In addition, if and when negotiations actually begin, there is yet another raft of conditions: the Palestinians must not raise the issues of the 1967 borders; the status of Jerusalem; the right of return for Palestinian refugees; and Israel's settlements (which the Financial Times this week labelled "Israeli colonisation").

The natural consequence of all these preconditions will not be a just, negotiated settlement; it will be the imposition of a series of diktats on the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas has, for more than two decades, shown a penchant to grant concessions freely in the name of "flexibility", "pragmatism" and "creativity". A combination of internal and regional factors would make further compromises unwise.

In the circumstances, the PLO-PA insists on two basic conditions: before any negotiations can commence, Israel must end its settlement activity; and talks must be based on the 1967 borders. Indeed, Mr Abbas says that he wants to see the map of the land about which they would be negotiating.

However, by not committing to a halt in its colonisation programme, the Netanyahu government is clearly leaving the door open for the confiscation of more Palestinian land. Fifty-one per cent of the 11.8 million people living in historical Palestine are now Israeli Jews; they control 85 per cent of the land and the same percentage of its water resources.

In hindsight, Abbas must take responsibility for this aberration. He is, after all, one of the acclaimed architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which divided the West Bank into three zones and left Area C, 60 per cent of the territory, to Israel, the assumption at that time being that after five years it would become the territorial bulk of a Palestinian state. That has not happened. Israel, with American support, of course, wants to annex that land.

To overcome the hurdle of preconditions, Kerry spoke of promoting economic development in the West Bank, which would create a platform for the re-launch of negotiations. This is nothing new. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister has been speaking of this ever since he became the International Quartet peace envoy to the region. The Quartet's website quotes him at length:

"My belief is that facilitating change on the ground is key to providing the most favourable context for political negotiations to succeed. Alongside my team of experts, with the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, I am working to promote economic growth and institutional development to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza…"

Sadly there has been little economic progress and much less of a political dividend to show for the Blair plan.

Yet to assume that Secretary of State Kerry is totally bereft of a political plan is to be guilty of denial. With a new order in Egypt, the Americans are seeking to draft Jordan into the political process, starting with a Palestinian-Israeli summit in Amman attended by King Abdullah and supervised by Washington.

Already, Abbas's growing collaboration with Jordan has provoked many questions. Rumours of a confederation arrangement between Jordan and Palestine have been swirling for weeks. While the principle of regional cooperation is accepted and supported widely, many Palestinian oppose integration of any kind with Jordan before the restoration of their national rights.

For now, Kerry was absolutely right when he said that it is better to start negotiations on the correct basis rather than to simply start in haste. He offered nothing else to ensure a proper start apart from proposing some confidence-building measures. Moreover, he couldn't even get these off the ground, with Netanyahu rejecting Kerry's request that he should release Palestinian hunger-strikers and other prisoners incarcerated before Oslo.

In order to succeed where others have failed the Obama administration must first get its priorities right. Which is more important: resolving the Palestine issue or reconfiguring the Middle East in America's and Israel interests after the Arab Spring? Equally, the US must decide whether it wants to become an honest broker or remain as a partisan towards Israel. Marrying the two roles is simply not possible. As it stands, the Americans, it seems, will only decide when it becomes too costly- politically and economically – to support Israeli colonial policies. As such, with or without preconditions, there's no hope for any meaningful negotiations.

Asia & AmericasCommentary & AnalysisIsraelMiddle EastPalestineUS
Show Comments
Show Comments