It has been only twenty-one weeks since John Kerry was sworn in as US Secretary of State, but on Thursday, he will be making his fifth visit to Israel since his appointment to office.
Kerry recently announced a plan at the World Economic Forum last month to invest as much as $4 billion in the West Bank. The Secretary’s previous four visits to both Israel and Palestine are all part of a proactive agenda to revive peace talks that halted five years ago.
In efforts to set up negotiations between Palestine and Israel, Kerry has urged Palestinian officials to hold off on seeking membership in international forums to strengthen their claim to statehood while at the same time condemning Israel’s settlement-building in the West Bank. While currently the two-state solution – that is, granting Palestine statehood alongside the state of Israel – seems the most probable and while the Israeli government has for the moment paused construction in the West Bank, both sides are pessimistic.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has questioned Israel’s intentions. “The only one who needs to be convinced, and I urge Mr. Peres to exert every possible effort to convince him, is the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] of Israel saying he accepts two states on 1967. He needs to say it,” he told reporters at the World Economic Forum.
Israel’s response to this has been cold. Economics Minister and leader of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett represented Netanyahu’s position in a recent statement last Monday: “The idea that a Palestinian state will arise inside the land of Israel has reached a dead end. Never in the history of Israel have so many people dealt with so much energy with something so pointless.” He added that Israel should “build and build and build” in places like “Judea and Samaria,” these biblical names for the West Bank themselves a political statement.
Additionally, Danny Danon, Netanyahu’s Deputy Minister of Defense and member of the same Likud party, states that there is “certainly no majority” within the party in support of recognizing a Palestinian state.
Despite these setbacks, the tone of the peace negotiations in general has shifted from that of President Obama’s first term, during which the conflict was defined mainly by a speech the president delivered in Cairo attempting to change American policy toward the Muslim world and to reassert the need for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tone of the conflict during the administration’s second term has been set almost immediately with Obama’s visit to both Israel and Palestine in late March when he declared that the US seeks “an independent, a viable, and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people, alongside the Jewish state of Israel – two nations enjoying self-determination, security, and peace”. Obama emphasized that direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine are the only possible way to arrive at any sort of solution, and that is exactly what Kerry has been working toward.
However, just days before Kerry’s most recent visit to Israel and Palestine in mid-May, the Israeli government began authorization of four new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official Hanan Ashrawi stated that this timing is significant in that it is a strategic obstacle to peace negotiations. “It’s an attempt to tell the Americans that Israel calls the shots,” he said.
Israeli historian Avi Shlaim criticized Israel for these same actions in 2010, when he wrote, “Netanyahu is like a man who, while negotiating the division of a pizza, continues to eat it.”
Even former Knesset Member Schlomo Molla stated at an International Conference in Beijing last Wednesday, “Our tragedy is Netanyahu,” who he accuses of being merely a politician.
Abdelaziz Aboughosh, Palestinian Ambassador to Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Brunei Darussallam, reiterated Palestine’s conditions for negotiations at the same conference. They include confirming the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel prior to the Oslo Agreement, establishing a Palestinian State based on pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, reaching a fair solution to the refugee question, and ending the Gaza blockade. Israel is unlikely to agree to these demands. Palestine has turned to international appeal, signaling that it may return to seeking state membership on an international level since agreeing to refrain from doing so until after June 7. Palestine has received wide global support, with leaders at the G-8 summit last week issuing this statement: “We affirm our support for the Palestinian Authority and its state-building efforts and encourage the international community to extend the fullest assistance possible to revitalizing the Palestinian economy.”
Even if Palestine does receive international recognition as a state, conditions on the ground will not change unless an agreement is made with Israel. The US will play the ultimate vital role in the picture, as it has for the past twenty years.
This is why Palestine is looking to the US more than ever for recognition. “No one benefits more (from) the success of Secretary Kerry than Palestinians and no one loses more (from) his failure than Palestinians,” Erekat stated. He fears a worsening of the “evil apartheid” that Israel has created in the West Bank and East Jerusalem if Kerry does not succeed.
There is little doubt that US pressure on Israel will come at high political costs for President Obama. The question is, is he willing to risk it? The aggressiveness with which Secretary Kerry is approaching the conflict and the fact that Obama does not have to prepare for another campaign season indicate that he just might be. Indeed, despite pessimism on both sides, there is still reason to believe the negotiations are not merely, in Bennett’s words, “pointless.” David Fisher, Deputy Economic Counselor at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, told The Gate in May, “Secretary Kerry’s efforts since he came into office have succeeded in refocusing the attention of everyone involved to the need to try and make progress of resolving this dispute.” After twenty years of back-and-forth negotiations, this seems a step forward.
However, Kerry’s agenda has become more complicated, having caused him to postpone his fortnight visits to Israel and Palestine. With the intensifying civil war in Syria, Kerry finds himself balancing attempts to involve Russia in a peace conference intended for Syria’s Assad regime and its opposition forces and appeals to countries like Qatar, in which the Afghan Taliban has recently opened a political office, to step up aid to Syrian rebels to prevent further intervention by Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
It seems that Kerry operates with a sense of urgency and the understanding that there is little time left in the peace process. The conditions in which Israel and Palestine find themselves with relation to the other are not sustainable.
Aboughosh’s appeal rings true for all sides: “They cannot wait forever for their freedom.”
The image featured in this article was taken by Cliff. The original image can be found here.