Kerry's three Israel-Palestinian options

The Obama administration objects to the Palestinian plan of turning to the UN for recognizing Palestine, thus hesitating between two options: a new outline based on former negotiations or a series of gestures and negotiations without a deadline.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint news conference with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri in Cairo, Oct. 12, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

settlements, peace process, palestine, mahmoud abbas, israel, intifada, boycott, benjamin netanyahu

Oct 16, 2014

US Secretary of State John Kerry is the last man on earth who still believes that lemonade can be made of the squeezed lemon otherwise known as the "peace process."

In his address in Egypt on Oct. 12, he said he would continue to try and promote the process. Along with reports about his plan to resume the negotiations on the basis of an agreement to discuss the territorial issue along the 1967 borders (according to a report in the Israeli daily Haaretz, he broached this subject during his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York), Kerry's aim is to persuade the Palestinians to forego their plan. The Palestinians want to turn to the UN Security Council and try to get nine members to support them. Then they will turn to the UN plenary and join the various UN agencies, including the International Criminal Court, so as to bring Israel to its knees.

In Washington, they don't like the Palestinian plan, which rocks their leaking Middle Eastern boat. This plan could be conducive to another outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians. Pushing Jerusalem up against the wall, it will force Washington to cast another veto at the Security Council against its own beliefs and policy, only because Israel must not be left to its own devices, or alternatively be at loggerheads with the highly influential Israeli lobby.

At present, the last remaining peace proponents in the region, peace camp activists from all sides — Washington, Jerusalem, Ramallah and outside observers — are grappling with three possibilities. These are different modes of action which could be enacted in the current state of affairs, whereby Israel and the Palestinians find themselves at their lowest point since the start of the Oslo process in 1993 (barring the violent confrontations in 2001).

The first possibility is to create a political moment of truth by dropping a new peace formula which will require both parties — Israel and the Palestinians — to address it. Such a formula could be the paper that Kerry and his team had worked on for many months. It could also be an "Obama outline," which would be formulated on the basis of that work. Kerry's efforts during the months-long negotiations to start the deliberations with what is known as "borders and security first" ran into a concrete wall Netanyahu put up.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas laid out a map which was juxtaposed against 23 topics that Netanyahu said had to be addressed before he could lay out a map. Netanyahu's catch is clear, hurling the whole process into a catch as well: If he lays out a map that's good for the process, he will remain with neither a coalition nor a party. However, if he lays out a map that's good for the coalition and his own party, there will be no process, thus exposing himself as a non-partner. That's why Netanyahu prefers to put up reservations and stall for time without having a definite objective.

The idea of the first scenario is to make Netanyahu face his moment of truth, similarly to the decision of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who left his Likud Party to establish the Kadima Party in 2005. Presenting this proposal or the Euro-American formula (which could garner the support of the entire international community by turning it into a unanimously approved Security Council resolution), would confront Netanyahu with an excruciating watershed. If he says yes, half of his coalition would secede and his party turn on him. If, on the other hand, he says no, the second part of his coalition (namely Finance Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnua Party) will walk away, resulting in a coalition crisis and new elections.

Both these options will be good for the process, breaching the deadlock it was caught in. If Netanyahu sets up a new political framework and flows with the process, it will be for the best. Should he declare new elections, the Israeli public will have to decide between Bibi (Netanyahu) and the settlers, and the United States and the rest of the world.

The second scenario is to make no attempt at forcing a formula on the parties or making them face a fait accompli. President Barack Obama is unwilling to squander the little credit remaining in his coffers to confront Netanyahu, not even for the sake of digging Israel out of this perilous stalemate. Even after the US mid-term elections in November, Obama will not become an improved version of John Kerry. Rather, he will continue to be the same old Obama. Negotiating parties not interested? Fine. And that's why even if the Palestinian resolution to the Security Council consists of all of Obama's statements over the years, the Obama administration will nonetheless cast a veto. Some people at the White House are opposed to this approach, which does have some supporters, however. So what will happen? An attempt will nonetheless be made to squeeze a few drops out of this dry lemon.

It is better to create a process that flows with Netanyahu than have an explosion. What does a process that flows with Netanyahu mean? It means a process that tries to max out his government's limited flexibility, while awarding Abbas various benefits and perks so he would acquiesce (external political support, cooperation of the Arab League, etc.). All of this is aimed at coasting through Obama and Netanyahu's remaining term, not to reach an arrangement, but mainly to avert further deterioration and put a lid on future options, which will be achieved mainly by making improvements on the ground.

Both the Israeli defense establishment and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon understand that more energy has to go into this, and that assets must be conceded to bring about a real change on the ground among the Palestinians. Such gestures would have to come in conjunction with a genuine move of transferring areas over to the Palestinians (for example, transferring 10% of West Bank Area C — under Israeli civil and security control — from Israel to the Palestinians, without relocating or evicting settlements), the reopening of the Orient House and perhaps implementing a partial construction moratorium in the territories.

Both these moves, namely transferring areas to the Palestinians and implementing a partial construction freeze, could render the tether of Netanyahu's coalition very taut to the point of snapping, but they are necessary to conciliate the Palestinians. Based on this outline — namely the second scenario — a new three-story house could be built: The living quarters is where negotiations on the core issues will be discussed without a deadline (contrary to the position of Abbas, who demands a cut-off date); a basement where all the changes on the ground, the gestures and so on will take place; and the penthouse, which is the regional context that will provide Abbas with the political bulletproof vest and Netanyahu with the benefits and bonuses in the form of ties with moderate Arab states in order to placate his intransigent coalition members, chief among them Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.

But there is also a third scenario, which contends that there is no chance that the first one will take place and all the more so the second one, which is both complicated and tedious. Hence, a stalemate is the better option. According to the proponents of this approach, there will be neither an arrangement nor progress, nor will there be any change in the destructive status quo on the ground until the Israelis begin to realize the price they will have to pay if the current situation persists.

The people of Israel, the advocates of this thesis opine, are still unaware of the price of the ongoing occupation. They have never been presented with the comprehensive bill. The Israeli political right is unbridled and will continue to go wild, build and seize beyond control. In tandem, the two processes taking place quietly and simultaneously in recent months will have run their course. This might not happen at the same time, but in each of these processes, the crisis will be sudden, sharp and painful, illustrating the cost. The first will be a process of international boycott and the second one will be a new wave of violence in the territories.

As for the first scenario, Israel might wake up one day to a decision by the European Trade Union Confederation to no longer handle or unload commodities from Israel. Period. Such ominous clouds are already passing over Jerusalem, like the EU boycott on importing dairy products from across the Green Line. Voices to this effect are already being heard in Europe. Though some US lawmakers are making efforts to curb stateside voices in favor of boycotting Israel. But, if the third option prevails and everybody loses hope, this will probably be the outcome.

As for the second scenario, the Israeli defense establishment continues to relay soothing messages, asserting that there are no signs of a third intifada and that the energy among the Palestinian population both in Judea and Samaria (where the standard of living is reasonable or better) and in Gaza (where life has been ruined) is not reminiscent of the energy of 2000. That said, there is a steady rise, however, in what is referred to as popular violent incidents, to wit, stone- and firebomb-throwing as well as serious and daily disturbances in East Jerusalem and on Temple Mount. We must bear the following in mind: The first intifada was nothing like the 20 years of occupation that preceded it. The second intifada was nothing like the first one. That's why it's possible that the third intifada will not be reminiscent of the second one, consisting of other ingredients and different dosages.

These are the three alternatives that are currently being broached in what is referred to as the bankrupt "peace industry." Kerry now finds himself somewhere between the first and the second. He has yet to make up his mind. Once he throws in the towel, we may end up with the third alternative.

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