John Kerry is proving himself to be a tireless, frequent flyer to the Middle East. He is taking seriously his role as the chief American diplomat behind the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Iranian nuclear talks, which are resuming today [7 November], and the dismantling of Syria's chemical arsenal.
He does what a Secretary of State is supposed to be doing; or does he? It is almost an intuitive action for American Secretaries of State to target the ME as the big prize, the place where they may purchase their ticket to the Noble Peace Prize, at least to historical immortality, by being those who make the final peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Hillary Clinton did not follow this path, so no Nobel Prize, but also no association with any ringing failure. John Kerry is still at the stage where there is no achievement or failure attached to him, but the moment of failure may be close.
According to unconfirmed press reports, the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian talks ended with a round of yells and screams. Not exactly a sign of good will and progress. There are reports about frictions within the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams, and some talk about an American plan in the making, to be made public in January 2014, if by then no meaningful progress is registered. Let us start with this unconfirmed report, which if correct may indicate that even the indefatigable Secretary is starting to lose his patience. Basing ourselves on past experience, this is a bad omen. By January 2014 there will be no dramatic progress to write home about, and then what? Any American plan will be in for strong criticism, probably more so from Israel, than from the Palestinians, as it is taken for granted that on some of the core issues, the American position now, as it has traditionally been, is closer to the Palestinian demands, than to Israel's stated policies.
Kerry just reiterated traditional American position negating settlements, defining them as illegitimate [though refraining from the illegal definition] and unhelpful. A statement which came in the aftermath of the release of 26 notorious Palestinian terrorists with a lot of Israeli blood on their hands, and the Netanyahu government plan to advance building projects in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu took the plunge when agreeing to release notorious terrorists, a highly unpopular decision in Israel, particularly among his political base, so more building in East Jerusalem is always an attractive goody to his current right-wing partners and potential future adversaries, something that enables them to swallow the bitter pill of the release, and with that he buys more time.
Mahmoud Abbas, on his side, buys his time with his internal critics by sharpening the tone towards Israel, issuing threats and allowing the continuation of the unacceptable anti-Jewish inflammation in his official media organs.
So, there may be a cynical way to view all that, by accepting the Yemenite dance element, of a step forward and two backward, or the opposite, allowing the rejectionists on both sides to raise the decibels of their criticisms, while the convoy of talks moves on. Well I, for one, do not share this sense. It fits into the well-established Middle Eastern conspiratorial mold of thinking, but in reality, things do not work that way.
If Netanyahu needs to promise more building in return for 26 freed murderers, what will he offer his base in return to any tangible political concession, once required to do it, by either an American peace plan in January, or by the Palestinians throughout the negotiations. The same goes to Abbas, and his need to placate his base by an ongoing demonization campaign against Israel.
Netanyahu would have done better in terms of Israel's real interests, were he to gradually release hundreds of Palestinian inmates, all from Fatah, and not Hamas, and not as a result of pressure on him, expecting to get reciprocal and simultaneous Palestinian gestures, but in reality, the opposite is happening. Release of prisoners is taken to be a unilateral gesture, a sign of weakness, when there is no Palestinian reward, and the Israeli right-wing is going crazy. Seen in this context, the talks offer not much hope, and the fact that they continue, sometimes even three times a week, a fact hailed by Kerry as a sign of progress, is not really such a sign.
In the background of all that, there are the Iran nuclear talks, the one event which is THE event to watch so long as Israel is concerned. Some commentators suggest that with these talks the Americans hold good, effective sway over Israel. Behave nice and flexible with the Palestinians, and we shall deliver the Iranians. Well, it may be a good political science textbook ploy, but go and sell it to such suspicious people as Netanyahu and Lieberman, and for that matter, the Israeli people at large. Let alone the Iranians, who are not exactly passive onlookers, and are not in favor of any Israeli-Palestinian progress.
The Iranian connection exists, and this is acknowledged by all, so why not reverse the order of things, first bend the Iranians, which is not just Israel's paramount interest, but also that of the US and its allies, and then claim the reward from Netanyahu. In a situation like that, he may finally find the political stamina and leadership required to confront his right-wing partners with the reality, that with no existential Iranian threat, Israeli flexibility with regard to the Palestinians is a must. Here again it is easier said than done. Delivering the Iranians under any circumstance is difficult, perhaps impossible. Delivering the Israelis without ANY progress with Iran is a fantasy. It will not happen.
So, with the Iranian situation in the background, we have another reason for pessimism, some will say realism, about the Israeli-Palestinian talks. They go on, but where to?