Sunday 7 April 2013

Is the Time Right?

US Secretary of Sate John Kerry is back in the Middle East this weekend to try to progress peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  This is clearly an attempt to capitalise on the recent visit of President Barack Obama, and to try to maintain the momentum which the president tried to ignite when meeting with the parties a few weeks ago.

While any effort that may progress the peace process is welcome, there is also a question about the timing of the current round of shuttle diplomacy.  Is this simply an attempt to force the American foreign policy agenda onto the Middle Eastern parties to prove that the US administration had tried its best, or is there a genuine feeling that the talks could work out this time where they have failed in the past?  A simple assessment shows that, while there have been some changes on both sides of the political divide in the Middle East, the fundamental issues that led to failure in the past still remain unchanged.  This begs the question as to why the Americans are bothering to spend time and effort on this challenge, when the prospects for success seem no better than before?

President Barack Obama managed to turn a negative public image in Israel into a much more positive one during his recent visit.  He had been roundly criticised for not having visited Israel during his initial term in office, despite the fact that the conflict with the Palestinians was a relatively high priority on the US foreign policy agenda.  The US president was viewed by many in Israel as being more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and the Muslim cause in general.  This was evidenced by his decision to visit Egypt so early into his presidency, where he made an important foreign policy speech.  His visit to Israel was his first foreign trip in his second presidential term, and has succeeded in convincing at least some of the sceptics that he does have a sympathetic ear for the Israeli side of the story.  He may even have managed to convince some of the Israeli leadership that he understands Israel's position in the conflict.  Perhaps he thinks that he may be able to cajole some of those Israelis who were opposed to his position, into cooperating with him now that they are more convinced of his genuine concern?

The Middle East conflict is far too deep-seated and fundamental to have its path changed on a whim.  There are substantial issues which underly the conflict, that cannot be altered on the strength of people suddenly believing that Obama has their best interests at heart.  The matter that halted the discussions at the previous attempt still very much remains an obstacle today.  This is the important requirement on Israel's part for the Palestinians to be prepared to recognise Israel as a Jewish state.  If Obama's USA is able to give this recognition along with many other countries around the world, there is a real question as to why the Palestinians feel that they cannot.   This reluctance simply gives greater strength to the argument that the Palestinians have a master plan to take over the entire State of Israel, and that this is what is preventing them from recognising it as a Jewish country today.

Over the years that the peace process has been stuck, the Palestinians have succeeded in inching their way up their list of demands without making any real compromises in return.  Their unilateral action at the UN last year is one example of this, but there are many others.  Progressively, they have been able to get the world to recognise them as a state amongst the nations, their main stated requirement from peace talks, without entering into negotiations, making compromises or quid-pro-quo.  It is perhaps for this reason that the Israeli government has been hanging on so tightly to the other bargaining chips it has in its hands, such as the status of Jerusalem and the settlements.  There is an argument to suggest that turning the screws on these critical points is the only way to return the Palestinians to conduct meaningful peace talks.  Why should the Palestinians choose to negotiate and compromise with Israel when the world is granting them their wishes on a platter, even while they continue to behave in a way which is contrary to any peace arrangement?

Perhaps Obama spotted an opportunity to extract a slightly softer negotiating position out of Israel with the formation of the new government, and the inclusion of Tzipi Livni with primary responsibility for peace talks.  This may be his driver for sending Kerry to the region now.  The situation within the Palestinian Authority is also different from before, with Mahmoud Abbas finding himself in a much a weaker position now than was previously the case.  He is ageing and less enthusiastic about his role, and has an uphill battle to counter the tide of popularity that arch-rivals Hamas are riding at the moment.  It is my belief, however, that even these changes are not enough to create the environment that is needed to move peace talks forward.  It is my prediction that this round of talks is doomed to failure, in the same way as previous rounds have failed. There are those who argue that it is better to try and fail, than not try at all.  I do not agree with this.  The current situation on the ground is fairly neutral in terms of relations between Israel and the Palestinians - nothing good and nothing particularly bad.  Instigating a new round of talks that end up on the trash heap will probably create negative feelings, thus causing a deterioration in the overall situation.

President Obama's visit to Israel was vitally important in terms of redressing the imbalance that was created by his special attention to the Muslim side during his first term.  This does not automatically create an opportunity for peace to suddenly break out.  In politics, and especially in Middle Eastern politics, timing is everything.  All indications are that now is simply not the time.

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