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Challenging Einstein: Kerry's 'new' diplomacy in the Middle East

The US must oppose the occupation and settlements, and support a Palestinian right to freedom, equality and statehood.

Last Modified: 25 Apr 2013 12:05
Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam.
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"John Kerry is now noting that the window for a comprehensive peace settlement leading to a Palestinian state could begin to close," writes Bennis [Reuters]

So there is talk once again of a “new” US initiative in Israel-Palestine diplomacy. We have got a new secretary of state. John Kerry is shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Hopes are supposed to be rising again. 

Really? We are supposed to cheer the possibility that 21 years of failed US diplomacy might - just might - become 22? There is no indication Israel is any more willing than it ever was to stop violating international law and UN resolutions. There is no evidence that any of the 600,000 or so illegal settlers who are violating international law every morning just by getting out of bed, are at all worried about losing either their illegally built homes or their military protection and privileges guaranteed by the Israeli state. There is no sign the siege of Gaza is being cancelled. And most important, there is no hint that the US is prepared to bring any pressure to bear on Israel to end any of those violations. 

So what is going on? Early leaks are focused on Kerry’s apparent decision to revisit the 2002 Saudi plan known as the Arab Peace Initiative. That could be interesting. The plan, endorsed by the entire membership of the Arab League, promised full normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel and an official end to the conflict - but only in return for “full” withdrawal of Israel from the territory it occupied in 1967, meaning all of Gaza, all of the West Bank and all of occupied East Jerusalem. It also required a “just” settlement of the refugee issue on the basis of UN Resolution 194 - which guarantees the right of Palestinian settlers expelled in 1947-48 to return to their homes in what is now Israel. 

But crucially, in those same early leaks, Kerry was reported to have proposed retooling the Arab Initiative to reflect the usual US-Israeli formulation: a-two-state-solution-with-swaps. In Tel Aviv and Washington that means Israel gets to permanently annex the vast city-sized settlement blocs in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as most of the existing settlement-controlled land - leaving in place all but perhaps a few thousand of the 600,000 or so settlers. And crucially, Israel would retain permanent control of all of the West Bank’s main water aquifers. 

Arab Peace Initiative

When the proposal was introduced in 2002, the George W Bush administration briefly noted it as a way to “end the conflict”. But they ignored the obligations it would have imposed on Israel to end its key violations of international law, including occupation, denial of the right of return and more. They treated the Initiative as if it were a unilateral Arab offer to end the conflict on Israel’s and Washington’s own terms. And then Washington dismissed the Arab initiative altogether. 

So Kerry’s latest discussion of revisiting that proposal means little, since it would be undermined by the Obama administration to match the longstanding US-Israeli demands for legalisation of the Israeli theft of Palestinian land and water inherent in the settlement project. Kerry’s view of the Initiative certainly is intended to create a Palestinian “state” denied real sovereignty: denied the right to control its own borders, economy, airspace, off-shore waters, self-defence, etc. With those amendments, reconsideration of the Arab Peace Initiative brings little comfort to those committed a real, lasting, just and comprehensive peace based on international law, human rights and equality for all. 

Spotlight
Gaza Crisis

There is one interesting note - Kerry is now noting that the window for a comprehensive peace settlement leading to a Palestinian state could begin to close. Hardly a revelation for anyone who reads the news - even the mainstream papers have not been able to hide the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, the continuing siege of Gaza, the continued denial of Palestinian refugees’ right to return home, the continuing second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel.  

But - if anyone inside is now peering outside the official Washington bubble to acknowledge the need for a different approach to Israel-Palestine diplomacy, that is all good. If anyone in the White House or State Department, not to mention Congress, begins to realise that doing the same thing over and over again, making the same failed claims that “the two sides have to sit together, both sides have to make compromises, only direct talks between the two parties can bring about peace” as if this were a negotiation between equals, as if it were a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador rather than between a powerful, wealthy, nuclear-armed Occupying Power and an disempowered occupied people, that could mean the beginning of a new approach. 

As Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi noted recently in the New York Times

“The ‘peace process’ has consisted of indulging Israeli intransigence over Palestine in exchange for foreign-policy goals unrelated to the advancement of peace and Palestinian freedom…. [I]f the objectives of the entire peace process are not ending the occupation, removing the settlements and providing for real Palestinian self-determination, then what is the purpose of pretending to restart it?”  

Real reassessment 

So far we have seen no indication from Kerry - or from President Obama - that such a real reassessment is underway. Last June, in an unexpectedly candid public forum, top Obama speechwriter and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes was challenged on his claim that it was great news that bilateral talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were possibly going to begin again. No one directly quoted Einstein’s famous quip about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But when asked why the same diplomacy that has failed for so many years was likely to achieve any different results this time, Rhodes’ seemingly deeply held answer was “there is no alternative!” 

He was wrong. The alternative is to change US policy. We could start by ending the current policy that is grounded in a $30bn 10-year commitment of US military aid to Israel; a refusal to insist that Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal be brought under international inspection; a commitment to protect Israel in the United Nations from any accountability for violations of international law and human rights, thus ensuring Israel’s impunity for such violations; and sponsorship of a “peace process” predicated on preserving Israel’s strategic, economic and military dominance over Palestine and Palestinians. 

A new, different policy would instead be grounded in what Washington officials, especially those of the Obama administration, like to refer to as “our values” - not the militarism and national arrogance that has in fact shaped US foreign policy for 200 years, but the ostensible American values of justice and equality. That would mean ending all aid to Israel (the 26th wealthiest country in the world) until it ends its violations of international law and human rights, refusing to enable those violations by ending the legacy of US protection of Israel in the UN, the International Criminal Court and elsewhere, and allowing an international - not US-controlled - diplomatic process to take shape. That new diplomacy, as Khalidi described it, would “chart a new course based on recognition that the United States must forthrightly oppose the occupation and the settlements and support an inalienable Palestinian right to freedom, equality and statehood”. 

To paraphrase Khalidi’s final words, “there is no other way”. 

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy US Power, on the legacy of the February 15 protests. She was on the steering committee of the United for Peace & Justice coalition helping to build February 15.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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