Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Indifference and disillusionment in the Holy Land, despite John Kerry's efforts

Reflecting on his field research in the Middle East, Jacob Eriksson argues that, despite John Kerry's recent efforts, indifference and pessimism are pervading the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

With mistrust between the parties as high as ever, is it possible for the two sides to make progress?  

Jerusalem, 21 July 2013: 

"You’ve got to hand it to John Kerry, he’s a tenacious operator. He’s managed to overcome the formidable impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has done well to get the parties back to the table. The respective teams are due in Washington some time next week for an initial meeting. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. As analyst David Makovsky put it, ‘Right now they’re in the very shallow end, and they’re going to have to swim in deeper waters — and they can be treacherous.’

After my many conversations over the last two weeks, it seems that Israeli public opinion regarding peace with the Palestinians is as divergent as it’s always been. Israel needs to withdraw from the occupied territories as soon as possible; yes, we need peace, but it’s hard and will tear the country apart; Israel is nice to those who are nice to us, and we are ready give up the West Bank and East Jerusalem for a Palestinian state if they prove they accept our Jewish state; all of Jerusalem, East and West, is Israeli, no doubt about it, and the Arabs (note: not Palestinians, but Arabs) can’t have it.

This, in itself, is nothing new. Opinion on peace and the Palestinians has always been divergent. What is remarkable, however, is the overwhelming feeling of indifference. Though this was present when I was last here in 2009, it now seems far more pervasive. Despite Kerry’s continuous efforts and the renewed commitment he’s managed to get, people remain very pessimistic. Mistrust between the parties is as high as ever, and questions to Israelis about what is required to change this are either greeted with a shrug, or the suggestion that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court. They need to make the first move to break the formidable psychological barrier, like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did when he visited Jerusalem in 1977 and addressed the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Perhaps this opinion is also informed by the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is unlikely to initiate any substantial moves towards the Palestinians. The man’s politics can be described in one hyphenated word: risk-averse. He is not a man whose unwavering conviction leads to big, bold decisions. Like many politicians, his main priority appears to be staying in power, navigating the political waters and keeping his head just above the surface. During his first period in office (1996-1999), he did it badly. Torn between the liberal left – who wanted to see progress in the peace process – and the conservative and religious right – who were against any territorial concessions to the Palestinians and in favour of settlement expansion – Bibi swung from one to the other and managed to alienate everyone. Too accommodating for the right and not accommodating enough for the left.

Given that his current government leans even more towards the right, it does not augur well, and he will no doubt try very hard to avoid a similar situation by standing his ground. There is an agreement to release a number of Palestinian prisoners, but that is all Kerry could get – there is apparently no Israeli acceptance of Palestinian pre-conditions, including using the 1967 Green Line as a basis for negotiations, and a settlement freeze which includes East Jerusalem.

The occupation of the West Bank is not palatable or pretty, nor does it reflect well on the Israelis, as the security experts I have spoken with admit, but they cannot realistically envisage an alternative at this stage. It is the best of a bad set of options. The firm conviction on my part that Israel needs to withdraw from all of the West Bank in order to ensure its long-term security is greeted with polite scepticism, and either a ‘OK, but how can that happen now?’ or ‘No, you don’t understand the Palestinians.’ Either way, it’s not particularly encouraging. The effective security cooperation that does exist with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and has been working for Israel’s benefit over the last four or five years is given short shrift. Without an Israeli presence, security is not guaranteed, and that’s the bottom line.

And what of the Palestinians? Disarray seems to be the word of the day. President Mahmoud Abbas (commonly known as Abu Mazen) is currently trying to shore up the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has come under severe criticism over the past year. Street protests over mounting economic problems were prevalent in September 2012, and quickly spread to broader political grievances over the Israeli occupation and the PA’s inability to improve their lives. A political battle between President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the politically independent economist much loved in the West, was played out in all this, with Fayyad resigning in April this year. His successor, Hami Ramdallah, was in post for two weeks before submitting his resignation due to a disagreement over Abbas’ appointment of two deputy ministers. The composition of a new government is not yet clear. Meanwhile, reconciliation and the formation of a national unity government between Abbas’ main Fatah group in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip doesn’t appear to be on the cards either. The Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from grace in Egypt has weakened Hamas, and they won’t be keen to negotiate from such a position.

Predictions that a third intifada would erupt in 2013 have thus far proved incorrect. The Palestinian street is full of cynicism and mistrust towards all things political, but the prevailing opinion appears to be that political reform, not violence, is the key to their problems. Memories of the tremendous damage wrought by the second intifada are still fresh enough to deter them, not to mention the civil war between Fatah and Hamas in 2007. But how long will this last without progress in the political process and improved quality of life? One can only hope that continued disillusionment and frustration does not make violence seem attractive.

As a result of this, the process will have to be extremely carefully managed, as it may well be the last roll of the dice for Abu Mazen and the PA. Another failure to move decisively towards proper statehood may be too much for the Palestinians to bear. Kerry needs to study the lessons of previous failures very carefully, and use the six to nine months the parties have committed to – reports vary – wisely. He must try to manage expectations clearly from the outset, maintain secrecy, and try to officially establish the by now well known parameters of a two-state solution.

Despite Kerry’s initial achievement, scepticism remains the word of the day. We have seen this story many times before; at best it has ended in disappointment, and at worst, violence. Ultimately, there are two classic Middle Eastern negotiating positions that need to be overcome: ‘I’m weak, how can I negotiate?’ and ‘I’m strong, why should I negotiate?’ Let’s hope they can break this Gordian knot". 

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