US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently on his sixth visit to the West Bank and Jordan since March and made optimistic noises regarding his self-declared mission to revive the peace talks with Israel. He announced on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a basis for returning to peace talks.
We’ve been here too many times before not to be slightly cynical about this news.
The first question, then, is ‘why now’?
History provides plenty of evidence to suggest that flurries of American ‘peace talk’ activity are generally accompanied by a war in the region. The aim of the exercise is to readjust the image of the US on the international stage. Bellicosity is offset by the quest for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, brokered, of course, by the Americans.
Thus, under George Bush Sr, the Madrid Conference came just months after the coalition invaded Iraq in 1991. George W. Bush took it one step further, telling startled Palestinian ministers that God himself had told him first to invade Afghanistan in 2001, then “go end the tyranny in Iraq” (2003) and then, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East”.
It is a logical conclusion that Kerry’s intensive diplomacy is intended to counteract preparations for a war in Syria, or Iran, or both.
It may also be a PR exercise to counteract American foreign policy failures and omissions in the Middle East.
Having championed the Arab Spring revolutions, the US started to backtrack when the ballot box brought the Islamists to power and the keenly anticipated new dawn of pro-western liberal democracies throughout the region failed to materialise.
The US refused to describe the Egyptian army’s removal of the properly elected Islamist president Mohammad Mursi as a military coup. This glaring hypocrisy is offset by the presence in the region of Senator Kerry about his mission.
As is the chaos in Libya, where the West intervened directly to topple Muammar Gaddafi and which has been left to rot, the oil supply having been secured.
So, too, the signal failure of the West to act effectively in Syria, where the bloodbath continues and where hordes of jihadis and extremists are massing, is cast in softer relief by the peace-broker. But so as not to appear too embittered, let us consider what Kerry is offering.
Along the lines of the peace achieved in Northern Ireland, the plan is to establish an ‘Economic Peace’ whereby $4 billion (Dh14.68 billion) will be invested in the West Bank, providing jobs, manufacturing and kickstarting a prosperous economic cycle.
As in Ireland, the lucky inhabitants of the West Bank — if all goes according to plan — will be sufficiently diverted by prosperity to forget about politics, their rights and their brethren in Gaza who are excluded from this plan entirely.
In exchange, the Palestinians would agree to ‘swap’ land on which illegal Israeli colonies have been constructed — with the result that their own territory could never be contiguous, putting the final nail in the coffin of any ‘two-state solution’.
The Arab League expressed its support for Kerry’s plan on Thursday and Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President Mahmoud Abbas is also apparently being reeled in on Kerry’s juicy hook, having forgotten both his former pre-conditions (freezing colony-building) and the humiliations he has suffered at the hands of the Israelis (who authorised the construction of nearly 1,500 new homes in the West Bank on June 13). But the Arab League is not mandated by the Palestinians to speak for them in negotiations; nor, indeed, is Abbas whose term in office expired three years ago along with that of the PNA parliament.
Reconciliation between Hamas (which has ruled Gaza since being elected in 2007) and Abbas’s Fatah, which might have produced a united Palestinian position, seemed likely back in May when both groups expressed their intention to agree the composition of a National Unity Government and move towards parliamentary and presidential elections in both the West Bank and Gaza but has now foundered.
Recent events in Cairo have further complicated the process since both parties agreed that Egypt would be the sole arbitrator for reconciliation. Any peace plan that was not endorsed by Hamas would be impossible to implement.
It is true that Abbas has solemnly promised to hold a public referendum if a peace plan emerges from final status negotiations, but only the citizens of the West Bank (2.3 million) would be offered the chance to vote. With neither Gazans (1.6 million) not the Palestinian diaspora (6 million) invited to express their opinion, such a referendum could not be representative of the general opinion of the entire Palestinian nation.
The point is that there is no realistic political infrastructure for peace, nor even for proper negotiations. For all Kerry’s efforts, neither the time nor the conditions are right for the revival of the peace process.
I do not believe that the Palestinian people want their sincere quest for a just settlement — which has been ongoing now for more than 60 years — to become nothing more than a smokescreen for foreign wars in the region.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation.