US Can’t Afford another Diplomatic Debacle in the Middle East
Frustrated but not ready to quit, US Secretary of State John Kerry is picking up the pieces of the worst crisis to hit the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since he launched them a year ago. Even if he breathes new life into the wayward process and gets it extended for another nine months after the April deadline, he will only be buying time for the next crisis.
But for now, he is determined to prove to a skeptical White House that he can still save the day, before he is cut short.
(DEBKA Weekly reported previously that Kerry’s efforts were running into resistance in the White House.) In Algeria for strategic security talks, the US Secretary Thursday, April 3 vowed to continue his efforts “no matter what.” But he also admitted: "You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises." he said.
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. "Now is the time to drink," Kerry said. "The leaders need to know that."
This may be taken as a hint that the top US diplomat is ready cash in his cards.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources estimated that in the short term, he may be able to cajole Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) into moving on and even accepting the package which sparked the crisis. But it won’t last.
Kerry can’t afford another diplomatic debacle
Under that package, Israel was to release 420 jailed Palestinian terrorists, including Israeli Arabs (over loud objections within his cabinet and the street) and announce a limited and partial freeze on settlement construction.
The US was to have considered granting the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard an early release to reward Israel for its concessions and mute the domestic resentment and cabinet revolt they stirred up. The White House has not confirmed this step.
Abbas was to have agreed to prolong the negotiations until the end of the year, however grudgingly
If this doesn’t happen by the middle of next week, it is likely that either Kerry will pack his bags and give up or the White House will pull the rug from under his feet.
But Thursday, April 3, the prospects for a positive outcome deteriorated sharply.
Israel announced the fourth batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners was not released Saturday night, March 30, because the Palestinians had meanwhile applied to 15 UN agencies and conventions to accept the “independent Palestinian state” as a member, flouting their commitment to the US Secretary and Israel. The Palestinians threatened to use their membership to have international courts “convict Israel’s leaders as war criminals.”
Palestinians and Israelis trade jabs
For returning to negotiations, the Palestinian leaders then laid down new conditions: Recognition of the 1967 lines as the borders of a future Palestinian state with east Jerusalem its capital; the release of 1,200 prisoners, including multiple murderer Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, plotter of the assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister; the lifting of the blockade on Gaza; the end of Jewish construction in east Jerusalem; no more IDF arrests of Palestinian terror suspects; and the award of Israeli citizenship for 15,000 Palestinians..
Israel hit back Thursday night with a series of penalties. They included the suspension of high-level bilateral communications between governments, and the relegation of Palestinian affairs to the Government Coordinator Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordecai; a freeze on the release of third-generation cell phone technology to Palestinian Authority-ruled areas and an end to communications equipment exports to the Palestinian cell phone company owned by Mahoud Abbas’s sons. Finally, the 14,000 dunams of Jordan Valley land already allocated to Palestinian farmers would be held up.
The Israeli government said further punitive measures were under consideration.
Egypt is lost to US. Al Qaeda swarms across the region
Netanyahu has not said anything about this. He has left it to vocal colleagues to berate the Palestinians for fabricating the latest crisis by a show of bad faith.
In fact, he is quietly helping Kerry reassemble the smashed package. The US Secretary was working against time to avoid adding another diplomatic crash to the lengthening catalogue of abortive Obama administration policies for Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad keeps gaining strength against every US effort to get rid of him. Indeed, while Kerry is taxed with getting Geneva 3 under way (see the item about US arms shipments to Syrian rebels), Assad helped by Tehran is secretly engineering a presidential election for staying in power for seven more years!
He intends to sit in the presidential palace all the way to 2021 and watch two changeovers of American presidents.
Egypt has turned its back on the US sphere of influence. Whether Washington likes it or not, the former army chief, Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi, with backing from the country’s two powerhouses, the army and the judiciary, will be voted in as president in the May 26-27 election, much sooner than the administration expected.
In the three years since the US-backed Tahrir Square revolution ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Obama’s policies have failed to bring pro-democracy and liberal elements into government, or save the elected Muslim Brotherhood administration from last year’s military putsch after a brief term in office.
The military semi-dictatorship awaiting Egypt will be headed by an army officer, who refuses to respect the US as a leading world power and is politically predisposed toward a doctrine of anti-American Arab nationalism.
Israel, Palestinians set for morning after the talks break down
Added to this, Al Qaeda and its offshoots and affiliates are swarming across the Middle East with no substantial military force able or willing to contain them.
It was obvious to the watchers of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in recent months that they were heading for a crash.
Netanyahu and Abbas never met or talked directly. John Kerry more or less dragged them along willy-nilly.
Far from drinking, as Kerry has urged, both leaders are avoiding long-term commitments.
The Israeli government has felt no compulsion to halt new construction in Jerusalem or the West Bank settlements. Abbas at the head of a corrupt, unelected autocratic regime in Ramallah (still in power 14 years after the last Palestinian election gave rival Hamas a parliamentary majority), formed 63 “committees” to prepare membership applications for the “independent Palestinian state” to join an equal number of UN agencies.
By this act, he violated his pledge to John Kerry prior the talks, after Israel accepted the premise of Palestinian statehood as the basis of negotiations.
Both Israel and the Palestinians are therefore getting set for the day after the breakdown of diplomacy – notwithstanding the US Secretary’s indefatigable efforts to keep it alive.
As a support team, Kerry hired a staff of 200, headed by Martin Indyk, who took leave of absence from his position at the Washington think tank, the Brookings Institution, to act as Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
Indyk has not been popular with Netanyahu since his service as US ambassador to Israel in April 1995-September 1997 and again in January 2000-July 2001.
Abbas for his part shuns Indyk insisting he not neutral but biased in favor of Israel.
And indeed, due to Israel’s relative openness, the Special Envoy was well-informed on Jerusalem when he reported to the Secretary of State, but was more or less cut off from the goings-on on in Ramallah.
He and his boss were therefore caught unawares by Abbas’s latest machinations.
Abbas’s “diplomatic intifada”
Except in one respect, Abu Mazen has followed in the footsteps of his late master, Yasser Arafat.
US diplomacy failed to appreciate that Palestinian negotiating tactics have changed little in the 14 years since Arafat torpedoed the Camp David summit President Bill Clinton set up in August 2000 between him and Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
At the time, it was an open secret among the Camp David “peace” delegations – though not to their publics – that the Palestinian leader was setting them up for war rather than peace. This war, which became known as the Second Intifada, or the Suicide Bombers’ Intifada, raged for four years between 2000 and 2004.
Arafat went to Camp David to buy time and drum up Western donations to the Palestinian cause, which he used to bankroll the war.
Arafat, not surprisingly, agreed to nothing, and the trilateral summit broke up without an accord.
Instead of an armed intifada fueled by bloody terrorism, Abbas is conducting a diplomatic intifada, a campaign designed to get Israel condemned, isolated and boycotted internationally.
Meanwhile, he periodically dips warily into peace talks as a favor to Washington. This gains him international kudos as the respected representative of the Palestinian people and brings in cash to sustain his tottering regime and its hangers-on.
No way can Kerry resolve Israel-Palestinian inconsistencies
As a committed diplomat, he is free to wash his hands of responsibility if his campaign somehow stirs up Palestinian extremists and spills over into violence.
Yet John Kerry felt he could confidently brave this forbidding setup and pick his way toward cracking the most intractable issues of the day to achieve mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition – including Israel’s acceptance as a Jewish state; the drawing of national borders between two states; settling the Palestinian refugee problem and the issue of Jerusalem, and managing land swaps in lieu of Israel’s West Bank settlements.
Like many clever diplomats who went before him – and four US presidents – Kerry was confident that all these questions were susceptible to the right handling. And, like them, he refused to see the main stumbling block: The Palestinians’ prime goal has never been a state within the pre-1967 borders – except as a tactical measure – but a hegemonic Palestinian state that rules Israel – not the reverse.
This innate inconsistency at the root of the dispute is not susceptible to even the most determined and ingenious diplomatic methods. In any case, Kerry’s time is running out.