One wonders why the most recent visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to our region, his fifth in four months, aimed at breathing new life into the “peace process”, went largely unnoticed by commentators.
It’s a toss-up as to whether the scant attention it received in the Arab media was due to the fact that the US has long since shown itself to be ineffectual at brokering a settlement in Palestine or that the term “peace process” is already a tiresome cliche. And what self-respecting columnist would want to flog a dead horse or adopt a trite expression as a hook for his column?
To be sure, though the US secretary of state warned that if his efforts to kick-start negotiations between Israel and Palestine, frozen since 2010, failed, there may never be another chance, because “we are running out of time, we are running out of possibilities”, no one seemed overly concerned. After all, when the “angry black man” in the White House couldn’t bring his foot down, why would John Kerry, with his aura of guileless Wasp sweetness, do that?
Generations from now, the history books will speak of America’s accomplishments — its zestful popular culture, its innovative technology, its brilliant constitutional system, its intellectual, literary and artistic effusions — but brokering Middle East peace, from the Willian Rogers peace plan in 1969 to Hillary Clinton’s own in 2009, won’t be one of them.
Let’s backtrack to 1982, when it began to sink in that he and his movement were sidelined. And the realisation must have hurt deeply, for Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had effectively dominated Arab politics for 14 years before their expulsion to Tunis that year. Ensconced in North Africa, far away from his people, and with no prospect in sight of a political solution, the peripatetic Palestinian leader was left with nothing to do but attend conferences and visit heads of state in peripheral countries such as Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau or countries with high-sounding names such as the Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros and the Great Socialist Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahirya. And the Palestinians were left adrift.
Then came the Intifada. And the Madrid Conference. Then the Oslo Accords, which ill-trained PLO officials negotiated without a single expert in international law at their side, lured as they were by the chimera of a Palestinian state, promises of an end to military occupation and genuine freedom. And yes, let’s not forget the famous handshake at the White House lawn in 1993 — heralding the feast after the long fast, when Israelis and Palestinians would beat their swords into ploughshares and the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.
None of that materialised. What transpired instead was the CIA-engineered coup against the democratically elected Hamas government in 1997, whose end result was to split Palestinian society into bitterly opposed halves, rendering Palestinians even more helpless in the balance of power with their occupiers. At the time, I recall a Palestinian-American activist friend, a political scientist who had given 30 years of his life to the cause and was too old to give yet another 30 years to it, exclaiming with despair: “From here on, no matter what we do, it will probably end up dismal”. Then he added, as an afterthought, “Oh, forget the adverb”.
So what can the Palestinians expect from the flurry of diplomatic activity initiated by Kerry? In a word, squat.
Look, you don’t have to be well-versed in German military theoretician Karl von Klauswitz’s work to know that before you talk to your adversaries, you have to make gains on the ground (military gains, political gains, diplomatic gains, strategic gains) which you then translate into gains at the negotiating table. The fewer such gains you’ve made, the fewer rights you will get written into a settlement. If you get there as a helpless mendicant, say as the Germans did after their defeat in the First World War, the settlement you end up with is effectively dictated to you by those who have the upper hand in that balance of power.
And in this case trusting Washington, an Israeli advocate, to facilitate the signing of an equitable deal, where Palestinian national rights are genuinely addressed, would be like trusting O.J. Simpson to find the real killer.
Israel wants peace and the US wants to facilitate it? Good, here’s the 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative, which Kerry convinced Arabs to relaunch in late April, and sweeten even further with an amendment stating that the final borders between Israel and Palestine could be modified.
For Israel, this is an embarrassment of riches, an offer where the Zionist state would be recognised, accepted and even darn well welcomed as a neighbour in our region (and potentially even by Muslim countries around the world). Yet, Israel remains not only cool to the offer but disdainful.
Well and good that John Kerry concedes that “it is time” for this conflict to be resolved. That depends, however, on what the meaning of “is” is. A lot of people in the European world, the Third World, the Islamic world, and even people in the US, will tell you bluntly that it is indeed time that the US adopted a more even-handed, but muscular, posture in the region and recognised who the injured party is in this dispute. And then we’ll take it from there.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.