On 28 December 2016, in the dying days of the Obama presidency, Secretary of State John Kerry summoned the media to the Dean Acheson Auditorium in the State Department building in Washington, where he promised to “deliver remarks on Middle East peace”. In a speech lasting more than an hour, Kerry provided a detailed apologia for the Obama administration’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, including an impassioned rationale for the US’s abstention on the Security Council vote on December 23 demanding an end to further Israeli settlement construction in territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
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Kerry proceeded to outline a blueprint for advancing towards a two-state solution. It took the form of six principles, which, he believed, were generally acknowledged to be essential in any final status agreement that met the needs of both sides. In fact Kerry’s six principles closely mirror what is known of the near-agreements achieved in the negotiations of 2000 and 2008 under the two Israeli prime ministers named Ehud – Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert respectively.
Kerry’s speech was a model of balance, logic and reason. Unfortunately two major flaws lie at the heart of his thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they render both his analysis and his solution defective.
The first is the mantra, oft-repeated by Israeli leaders, and adopted by Kerry, that the only path to an accord lies in face-to-face discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). “A final status agreement,” asserted Kerry, “can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties.”
It is time that particular sacred cow was slaughtered. Face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the PA have been tried to destruction. A plethora of dates, strewn across the recent history of the Middle East, mark doomed efforts to resolve the conflict by face-to-face discussion. The truth is that all were predestined to fail, even before the negotiators for each side sat down at the table.
The reason is not difficult to deduce. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), leads a Fatah party whose charter states quite unequivocally that Palestine, with the boundaries that it had during the British Mandate – that is, before the existence of Israel – is an indivisible territorial unit and is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people. Each Palestinian, it declares, must be prepared for the armed struggle and be ready to sacrifice both wealth and life to win back his homeland.
Why then, one might legitimately ask, has Abbas spent the past ten years nominally supporting the two-state solution, and pressing for recognition of a sovereign Palestine within the boundaries that existed before the Six-Day War? The reason was spelled out by Yasser Arafat, in a secret meeting with top Arab diplomats in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel on 30 January 1996. It is a tactic, the first stage in a strategy ultimately designed to gain control of the whole of Mandate Palestine. The PLO, said Arafat, plans “to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian State.” This unchanged objective underlies everything that Abbas says in the Arabic media, but which he never mentions in his statements to the world.
Supporting the two-state solution is designed to swing world opinion to the Palestinian cause – and it has succeeded very well. But the naked truth is that no Palestinian leader would ever sign up to it, since to do so would be to concede that Israel has a legitimate place within Mandate Palestine – and that would instantly brand him a traitor to the Palestinian cause. To sign an agreement that recognizes Israel’s right to exist within “historic Palestine” would probably be more than his life was worth.
So to persist in asserting that face-to-face negotiations are the only way forward is perverse. They must, and always do, end in failure.
The second fatal flaw in Kerry’s perception of the situation is his continued assertion that there is only one possible objective if peace and stability in the region are to be achieved – the two-state solution. It is vital, he asserted, “that we not lose hope in the two-state solution, no matter how difficult it may seem – because there really is no viable alternative.”
Kerry’s two-state solution involves establishing a sovereign Palestine on most of the West Bank subject to agreed land swaps, on Gaza and somehow within a shared Jerusalem. He says there is no viable alternative, but quite simply this is not so. Imaginative thinking could yield a sovereign Palestine within a number of alternative contexts. It could also result in by-passing ineffective face-to-face negotiations, and provide the Palestinian leadership with the cover necessary to allow them to sign off on a final status agreement while shielding them from retribution meted out by extremists within their own ranks.
In September 2014 a report, quickly denied by both parties, suggested that Egypt’s President Sisi had offered PA President Abbas a 1,600 square kilometre area in the Sinai, immediately adjacent to the Gaza strip, to create a “greater Gaza state” some 5 times larger than at present. In exchange the PA would abandon claims to a sovereign Palestine within the pre-1967 lines, although the Palestinian cities in the West Bank would remain under PA rule. Adapting this concept, one could envisage a sovereign Palestinian state based on land swaps between Egypt, Israel and Palestinian areas in the West Bank that would provide a contiguous sovereign Palestine, significantly expand Gaza, allow Israel to retain major settlements in the West Bank, and provide Egypt with a land link to Jordan.
A second possible answer? At the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League the PA might be invited to a peace conference which takes as a starting point the Arab Peace Initiative, now 15 years old, but which adapts it to take account of today’s realities. The conference would be dedicated to establishing a sovereign state of Palestine, but only within the context of a new three-state Confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity to be established simultaneously, dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.
Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defense forces of the confederation.
The old nostrums have outgrown their usefulness. Present needs call for lateral thinking.