Since the launch of the so-called peace process in Madrid in 1991, the world has seen endless rounds of talks with numerous deadlines that are set, and then expire. Shuttle diplomacy efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry at securing peace between Palestinians and Israelis – as noble as they may be – were doomed to fail from the start.
Why would this round succeed when others have failed? The elusive peace agreement has always hinged on Israel’s willingness to shed its colonialist aspirations, its recognition of the rights of Palestinians and fundamentally the bold acknowledgement that it wronged them in 1948. The tenuousness of reaching a solution to a 66-year-old conflict is also a reflection of how far a US president is willing to go in pressuring Israel into making meaningful concessions that can anchor a lasting peace agreement.
Over the course of more than two decades, the US has struggled to define itself as an honest peace broker in the Middle East. Its presidents and lawmakers have repeatedly capitulated to the vested interests entrenched in domestic constituencies – like AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, its allies the evangelical Christian Right coalition and the powerful settler lobby – which help define presidential elections and how foreign policy is shaped in the US.
These domestic considerations have and continue to act as the “Achilles Heel” of US policy in the Arab world. They colour US views of the region, giving Israel the latitude to act as it pleases, secure in the knowledge it will not be punished even as it continues to violate countless international laws. With this unqualified US backing, Israel has consistently put the onus on the Palestinians for the success of any peace talks while it intransigently pursued an expansionist policy that expropriated more Palestinian land and continued to build illegal settlements.
After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scuttled earlier peace efforts by refusing to freeze settlement construction during US President Barack Obama’s first term, Kerry tried to muster momentum towards a deal with the hope of securing a legacy for the administration akin to the 11th hour initiative by former US President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. Faced with Kerry’s diplomacy, the Israeli leader demanded a new maximalist condition: That Palestinians not only recognise Israel as a state but also racially as a Jewish state even though about 21 percent of its population isn’t.
This definition that Israel is a Jewish state, no Palestinian leader or citizen can accept, because it means negating the Palestinian narrative.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset, told me: “No state has ever required the world to define it. With this demand, Netanyahu wants to obligate the Palestinians with a historic letter of surrender. This definition that Israel is a Jewish state, no Palestinian leader or citizen can accept, because it means negating the Palestinian narrative.”
In the 1980s, faced with the first Palestinian intifada or uprising, Israel demanded the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognise its right to exist before any dialogue takes place between the two parties. Arafat did so twice: In 1988 in Sweden and bearing an olive branch, again at the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva after the US denied him a visa to travel to New York. Most significantly, he did so conceding 78 percent of historic Palestine, marking perhaps the most salient concession ever given to Israel since its creation.
Arafat’s 1988 pivotal concession at the UN became a benchmark for Israel in negotiations, paving the way for decades of flawed peace talks that were based on the outcome of the 1967 Six Day War. The emerging narrative assumes the occupation of Palestinians began two decades after Israel’s creation and crucially negates past historical facts like the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. This became the framework for future negotiations. A lack of reference to the root of the conflict; namely the expulsion and exodus of more than 750,000 indigenous Palestinians and the absence of restitution or compensation for their descendants is inherently why peace talks have failed.
It’s no surprise then that the Olso peace process, concluded on the White House lawn between the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his Israeli counterpart Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, did not end the conflict. The Declaration of Principles as it is known was a framework agreement that allowed Israel to manage the conflict without providing any firm commitments on its part to the Palestinians. Major issues related to existing and future Israeli illegal settlements, water rights, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and discussions about an emerging Palestinian state were not addressed.
In effect, Israel was party to an agreement that had no defined outcome, yet which sought security commitments from the weaker Palestinians without recognising their narrative of suffering or right to self-determination. Talks have continued along this trajectory under Shimon Peres, Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, allowing Israel to anchor its discriminatory apartheid policies towards Palestinian Muslims and Christians.
US Vice President Joe Biden illustrated the double standards of US policies regarding Israel and its occupation of Palestinians while visiting Ukraine this month. In a speech from Kiev admonishing Russia for its presence in Crimea, Biden said: “No nation has the right to simply grab land from another nation.”
Israel’s colonisation, ethnic cleansing and expropriation of Palestinian land which contravene this cardinal principle, enshrined in international law after World War II, doesn’t appear to meet the US threshold of land grabbing.
As the formal April 29 deadline set for the conclusion of the Middle East peace talks expires, it’s clear that to bring about peace, Israel needs to move beyond the mantra and behaviour of a colonialist power, much like South Africans did.
As Tareq Abbas, son of the Palestinian president, told me: “The Israelis haven’t adhered to Oslo, which was supposed to be a road to an independent state; they didn’t give us a state and they didn’t even give us the road to it, while always undermining… the Palestinian Authority. I used to support the two-state solution and if it happens, I will accept it, but I believe they will not give us a state so the best solution for us is to ask for our human and social rights and be citizens in one democratic country.”
That anyone in Israel’s leadership has the courage to follow in the path of President FW de Klerk, who set Nelson Mandela free and ended the apartheid regime in South Africa, appears unlikely at present.
Dissolving the Palestinian Authority as President Mahmoud Abbas suggested this month, after Israel reneged on releasing Palestinian prisoners, may just be the wisest step towards a final settlement of the conflict.
Massoud A Derhally is a freelance business intelligence, risk advisory and media consultant and a former Middle East reporter for Bloomberg News.