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Hichem Karoui: On John Kerry’s visit
April 07, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected in Jerusalem and Ramallah on April 7-9, 2013. In the present situation of mounting tensions, his mission is utterly delicate. A few days prior to this visit, anger and defiance flared across the West Bank at the funerals of two Palestinian teenagers murdered by the Israelis. Their death came just after that of a prisoner with cancer in Israeli custody, which triggered the protests.

Those who see today no other alternative but a third Intifada are not an isolated minority of pro-Hamas hardliners, as some are prone to think, but active members of the PLO and prominent politicians who have been supporters of the peace process at a certain time, to whom the current policy of the Israeli government doesn’t give any hope.

These protests and deaths, added to renewed rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which prompted an Israeli airstrike (the first since four months), extremely tighten the margins of manoeuvre for the new Secretary of State and push the diplomatic prospects a little farther.

The recent developments on the regional and international arena may not seem of much help. Tensions over the Iranian nuclear issue, crisis with North Korea and threats of war might not contain elements that favour a new peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis.

This complicated situation is even more serious than many years ago, when another US Democrat administration was trying to tackle the same issue.

There is no question that despite President Clinton’s time and energy- consuming commitment to the peace process in the Middle East, the results were much disappointing, which is a deterring factor in any present and future US approach to this issue, advising caution. The failure earned Clinton harsh criticism from political rivals and various actors and observers. When Bush succeeded Clinton, it was known since the early days he would no longer pursue the same policy, considered by some influential people in the Republican administration as “vain” or unsuccessful. It has even been suggested that Clinton was personally “humiliated” by the refusal of the Arabs and Israelis to move towards peace. The Arabs considered him too much “pro-Israeli,” and the Israelis and their friends regarded him as “too close” to the Arabs. Each side had its reasons. Yet, “the Clinton administration in its first four years,” wrote Georgetown University professor Robert J. Lieber, “was closer to Israel than all previous US administrations.”

Indeed, the Clinton administration did not support the policy of wild colonisation Israel practised. So many times, we saw Mr Nicholas Burns, spokesman for the State Department, stressing that this policy of settlements does not help the peace process but complicates it. The Washington Post (December 15, 1996) quoted official US sources, denouncing the Israeli policy as “violating the spirit of the 1995 agreements signed with the PLO.” On December 16, President Clinton himself made a statement criticising the Israeli settlement activity as an obstacle to peace. And as far as we can judge by the official statements, the Obama administration has not moved away from this course, which is ostensibly the clashing point with the Netanyahu government. As stated by Mark C. Toner, Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department (December 3, 2012), “The United States opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations, and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations. This includes building in the E-1 area as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”

Unfortunately, these sayings have never been accompanied by real measures compelling Israel to respect the international community. All the US administrations systematically failed in bringing Israel back to reason. Arabs therefore doubt the good faith of the USA over this issue. Yet, the USA needs Arab support for numerous issues, regional and international.

Henry Kissinger once commented on the efforts of Bill Clinton, as follows: “The irony of the American role in the Arab-Israeli conflict is that the attempt in the last year of the Clinton administration to resolve it once and for all may well have taken it from the difficult to the intractable.” Explaining this point of view, the former Secretary of State said that what Israel seeks is “recognition for a homeland based on a Biblical claim and a symbolic end of the persecutions that have haunted the Jewish people for two millennia, capped by the Holocaust.” But to the Arabs — especially the Palestinians — “Israel’s objectives appear as a demand for acquiescence in the amputation of their cultural, religious and territorial patrimony.”

Defined in this way, the conflict seems to Kissinger offering very rare opportunities of compromise. Such a conflict in his eyes could be concluded only by “exhaustion, either physical or psychological.” Kissinger does not believe that a final agreement can be settled. In his opinion, “the most realistic proposal” should be “a definition of coexistence.”

During Clinton’s second term — in November 1997 and in January and February 1998 — the challenges to obtaining the Arab support to enforce UN resolutions became stronger, and this was partly explained by the slowdown of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

When the United States re-launched the peace process through the Wye River agreement in October 1998, Clinton won more support from Arab states during the confrontation in mid-November 1998 with Iraq. Yet, when President Clinton was preparing the Wye River Conference, for instance, he was facing less a complicated international situation than that Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are facing today.

Clinton made it clear then that he urged Arafat and Netanyahu “to think about how they could help each other cope with their domestic opposition.”

When they failed to have an agreement on all issues, they reached a partial one: Israel would withdraw from 13 % of the West Bank and the Palestinians would improve cooperation on security following the plan of CIA director George Tenet. However, when the Wye River accords failed in December of that year, Arab public opinion was again affected, especially when Clinton decided to bomb Iraq.

This back and forth go-between “support and rejection” of US policy on the Arab side is connected directly or indirectly to the Palestinian problem. This shows firstly, the importance of this issue for public opinion in Arab countries, as well as for governments. On the other hand, it shows the difficulties inherent to the peace process itself - which have nothing to do with Iraq or Iran or North Korea.

Therefore, there are no great expectations in the horizon of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Once again, the Arabs — not only the USA —should be blamed for failing to weigh in and make their presence felt.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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