The Kerry charade
Let’s call it what it is. The U.S. has used its muscle to get Israelis and Palestinians to discussions that neither of them wanted. Both sides speak and deal with one another all the time. It’s part of living side-by-side, with pockets of one inside the other, and no clear boundaries. Arabs with Israeli citizenship ponder their identities and loyalties. Some Israeli Jews with more than one passport question the validity of Arab/Palestinian divided loyalties, without considering their own situation.
What defies solution is a general agreement, covering boundaries, refugees, Jerusalem, Israel’s legitimacy and an end to Palestinian claims.
Geopolitically, the West Bank is a mess, created largely under the direction of earlier Labor governments then Ariel Sharon during his time as housing minister, and meant to get in the way of any Palestinian state that would threaten Israel. This was before Sharon’s epiphany with respect to withdrawing Jews from Gaza.
Palestinian response to the Gazan withdrawal makes a West Bank parallel unlikely.
Gaza was simpler, with relatively few Jews, a high level of human costs to settlers and soldiers meant to protect them, and clear boundaries around Gaza, most of which Israel controls.
Now Kerry wants to solve a macro problem that has been proven to be insoluble. Are his motives any more complex than a Nobel Prize? Or a need to echo his boss’s desire for success where there might be enough American clout to pressure both sides?
The problematic elements should have been clear to all who would look.
The Palestinian leadership cannot give up the right of refugees’ return, which Arabs have preached for decades. Family members preserve the keys to homes that no longer exist. Some may be fabricated only as symbols, and passed on to generations whose parents had yet to be born in 1948.
The Palestinian leadership might not be able to admit the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, in the context of Muslim religious leaders demanding its destruction, with Iran keeping up the drum beat, and when intra-Muslim bloodshed is at one of its historic heights. Jihadists in Gaza and the West Bank are always ready to accuse a Palestinian of heresy who would concede anything to the Jews.
In recent days a minister in the West Bank branch of the Palestine National Authority claimed that a religious principle stood in the way of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. The details of his argument are muddled, and not as important as his citation of religion somewhere in his explanation.
Israelis are not only reluctant to let in thousands, much less millions of Palestinians. There are also Israelis who cannot accept the rights of Palestinians to any of the land ceded by the Almighty to the Jews.
Israelis may justly pride themselves in being by less bloody and more rational than their Palestinian adversaries, but the settlers and their government allies have so complicated the map of the West Bank as to challenge anyone in John Kerry’s chorus.
Involved in the problems is a cultural divide that gets in the way of two sets of performers actually communicating with one another.
Trust is non-existent from either direction. One of my Jewish friends announced the formation of a French Hill-Isaweea joint committee to deal with mutual problems, but a description of one meeting did not name any Isaweea partners. The report featured French Hill complaints of fire bombs and other violence coming from Isaweea.
Another Jewish friend is considering a literary project that will involve an exchange of letters with a Palestinian friend, but he has yet to find a friend willing to write.
I once asked a Muslim if there was anything in their holidays the equivalent of the Jewish Purim or the Christian Carnival. His answer, “We don’t need to dress up. We’re always wearing masks.”
It is common to accuse both national leaders of wearing masks. Benyamin Netanyahu says time and again that he is working toward a two-state solution, but critics see him raising the bar too high for the Palestinians. One can quarrel about the importance of their recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, or the state of the Jewish people. However, it seems a fair test of their capacity to live alongside Israel in peace. Their claim that such a recognition would limit the rights of non-Jews living in Israel flies in the face of the reality that Israeli Arabs have more political rights than the residents of any Muslim country.
Mahmoud Abbas is fond of sounding forthcoming to audiences of left wing Israeli politicians or students selected for an invitation to Ramallah. Speaking to Arab audiences, however, Abbas notes the impossibility of conceding what he conceded in front of Israelis. One of his latest demands is a capital in all of Jerusalem over the 1967 border, which he justifies by his concern for al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His patronage of a Christian holy site provokes wonder or guffaws, against the record of Muslim harassment of Christians that has produced sharp declines in the Christian populations of what had been the largely Christian cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nazareth.
Can the world’s greatest power, with most of the greatest universities, be so naive as to miss the cultural differences between the Middle West and the Middle East?
Obama’s Cairo speech suggests that the culture of this region is beyond the ken of the man who prides himself on having Muslim relatives and having part of his schooling in Indonesia.
Kerry’s investment of personal time, effort, and rhetoric suggests that he doesn’t comprehend the difference between East Jerusalem and East Boston. There Italians, Irish, and Jews learned to live alongside one another, not without a history of harassment and low-level bloodshed. However, more than a century of assimilation has done its work, and made things easier for the influx of African Americans and Hispanics. Boston’s ethnic mix is less than ideal, however, as shown by last year’s disturbance of the Boston Marathon by migrants from the Middle East.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas want to keep the talks going, without aspiring to an agreement, and intent on avoiding too high a price for the other’s agreement to talk. It’ll take a while till we can see how this works.
Predictions are not positive. The European Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton has condemned the addition of some 250 acres to Gush Etzion, which is a site of old Jewish settlements overrun by the Jordanians in 1948, and re-established after 1967, and the transfer of one building to Jews in Hebron, after a long judicial process that reached Israel’s Supreme Court.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has condemned Ashton for paying more attention to small Israeli property actions than to more than 160,000 deaths so far in Syria.
American is big enough, rich enough, and isolated enough to worry more about local matters than any implications of what it’s government doesn’t get right overseas. The White House and Departments of State and Defense can blunder here, in the Ukraine, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a few other places, while the folks at home worry more about the price of gas, the murder down the block, the success of high school or college sports stars, or how they’ll pay for medications.
The best thing that Americans can do for Israel, the Palestinians, and their own reputation is to allow the Kerry process to wind down without a declaration that it is over. It could be replaced by committees of Israeli and Palestinian technocrats that will ponder issues below the high profile matters of refugees, borders, Jerusalem, and an end to the historic dispute.
If all this proceeds without a Palestinian intifada and Israel’s repression, then John Kerry and Barack Obama might boast that they had not made things worse.
Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.