Following US President Barack Obama's first official tour of the Middle East, which was relatively forgettable except for an impassioned speech in Jerusalem, Washington announced that Secretary of State John Kerry was going to go back two weeks later with a specific plan for an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, at which point a real breakthrough in the Middle East peacemaking process could be expected. That visit came to an end a few days ago and again – nothing.
It was John Kerry's third visit to the Middle East over the last two weeks. Ahead of his next visit to the region, 100 prominent American Jews sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requesting that he work out a pragmatic solution regarding the security of Israel. They called for the Prime Minister to make clear «Israel's readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace».
The appeal to the Prime Minister was organised and initiated by the executive board of the American organisation the Israel Policy Forum, which is actively in favour of a speedy peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian autonomy through the creation of two states for two peoples. In the letter, America's Jewish leaders called for Netanyahu «to take concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two states for two peoples’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict».
Well-known Jewish figures were among the signatories, including Charles Bronfman, Daniel Abraham, Lester Crowne, Stanley Gold, former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim, former US congressman Mel Levine, and former AIPAC executive director Tom Dine.
Leaders of US Jewish communities, including the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and his predecessor Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former UJA Chairman Marvin Lender, former Jewish Agency board chairman Richard Pearlstone, and one of the leaders of the UJA Federation of New York, Marcia Riklis, also signed the appeal to the Prime Minister. (1)
With such support, as well as the assurances of Barack Obama for a speedy resolution of the conflict, Kerry has spent three days moving backwards and forwards between Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. In the end, he has not managed to make any meaningful headway or even come to an agreement on the renewal of bilateral negotiations.
For example, Abbas told Kerry that the release of the 4,500 or so prisoners being held in Israeli jails, which Tel-Aviv had previously indicated was a possibility, was a «top priority for creating the right atmosphere for the resumption of negotiations.» Abbas also emphasised the fact that negotiations could only restart in tandem with an Israeli moratorium on construction in East Jerusalem and in settlements on the West Bank. The Palestinian leader called this construction «unacceptable», especially in the so-called E1 zone near Jerusalem. (2) He also asked Kerry to produce a map showing the true borders of a future Palestinian state as the Americans see them before negotiations begin. Ultimately, this is the most important issue and if the White House does not have a map, it means they have nothing at all. Kerry declined to give any specific answers to these requests, promising to discuss them with Israel. More or less unequivocally, both sides have agreed with the idea of Turkey mediating the peace talks. Coming to the end of its «honeymoon» period with Ankara, Washington is using a variety of «favours» to try and ally it more closely.
According to Israeli media reports, however, high-ranking officials in Jerusalem who were present at talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have declared that Israel does not intend to present any confidence building measures towards the Palestinians. Possible goodwill gestures, such as releasing prisoners or withdrawing from Zone C, were also rejected by Israel. Above all, the Israeli Prime Minister is uncomfortable with the idea of providing Mahmoud Abbas with a map showing the borders of a future Palestinian state. (3) Despite its tentative reconciliation with Turkey, Israel is also not ready to ask them to mediate. The mutual distrust of both sides has still not yet been fully overcome. (4)
In place of any real progress towards a peace settlement, Benjamin Netanyahu promised his American companion that he would not place any obstacles in the way of financial help desperately needed by Palestine being received from abroad and even affiliated it with what has formally been called «economic peace». The leading Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted those close to the Prime Minister as saying, «We received evidence that Kerry understood the theory of «economic peace» discussed by Netanyahu and agreed with it». (5)
In reality, John Kerry was left with nothing else but to announce this essentially technical agreement as the major achievement of his visit. The US Secretary of State said: «We agreed among us that we are going to engage in new efforts, very specific efforts, to promote economic development and remove some of the bottlenecks and barriers that exist with respect to commerce in the West Bank. Economic growth will help us provide a climate… in which people have greater confidence going forward». According to Kerry, during negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they discussed «specific steps we could take to break through the red tape». He added that he did not want to go into details, but said it would improve «economic security in the West Bank». Steps taken in areas such as the economy «could be critical to changing perceptions and realities on the ground, all of which can contribute to forward momentum» (6), he said.
Upon completion of his visit to Israel and Palestine, Kerry once again declared: «At this stage, we are going to focus on improving the economic situation in the Palestinian autonomy, to which end we are calling on the help of the entire global community and all major charities to help create an atmosphere conducive to renewing the peace process».
In reality, the «progress in the peace process» being loudly declared in America has come to a standstill. The experts who predicted that Israel's new cabinet, for all its «secularism», would be even stricter than its predecessor when it came to the issue of the Middle East peacemaking process are being proven right. In addition, amid the complex situation in the region, particularly around Syria and Iran, Washington is not intending to put any serious pressure on Israel.
In turn, those around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken Kerry's statements as a declaration of loyalty to the viewpoints put forward by the Prime Minister. Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elkin (Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is under investigation for corruption) announced: «Recent visits to our country by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister have shown that the rules of the game have changed and now our foreign allies are no longer calling for one-sided concessions and goodwill gestures as prerequisites for renewing peace talks with the Palestinian government». (7)
At the same time, Washington is continuing to earn brownie points with Ankara. According to reports in the Turkish press, Kerry, who travelled to Turkey following his visit to Israel and Palestine, asked the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan to postpone his planned visit to the Gaza Strip in April «as it may interfere with the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Israel». Following this request, Erdoğan, as noted, agreed to move his visit to Gaza to a later date.
Experts are linking America's efforts in the Middle East with possible preparations for a Syrian intervention. It has been reported that the US Defense Minister, Chuck Hagel, is to make an «urgent» visit to Israel on 21 April. On 22 April, meanwhile, a meeting is planned between the Israeli delegation and their Turkish colleagues, at which will be discussed «further steps in the reconciliation of both sides». (8) One cannot rule out that following this, somewhere near the end of April-beginning of May, a more active phase of the West's interference in Syrian affairs will begin with the help of Turkey and Israel… They are being spurred on to do this by «news from the front», from which it is clear that the radical group Jabhat al-Nusra, who recently acknowledged their alliance to Al-Qaeda, is increasingly gathering momentum. You will recall that this very situation began as a result of unilateral and, since it bypassed UN mechanisms, short-sighted intervention by the West in Syria.
It is also clear that having presumptuously moved aside other international mediators, including the «Middle East Quartet», Washington is showing itself incapable of making even modest headway on its own when it comes to the complex issue of the Middle East peacemaking process. To many Palestinians, even those loyally listening to Obama's energetic speeches calling for a speedy and just peace in the region, it is already beginning to seem like it is all just soporific rhetoric unsupported by any kind of feasible plans. Attempts to replace a just settlement with assurances that Palestinians will have a minimum level of material existence are also doomed to failure, since «man cannot live by bread alone».