July 21, 2013
Kerry’s Peace Achievement and Europe’s Shitty Little Surprise
Three leaders were eligible for a Nobel peace prize twenty years ago for not bringing about a lasting peace. And one wonders: has the bar been lowered enough since then to the point that achieving negotiation alone - just the talking - is now an accomplishment worthy of the trophy? If Rabin, Peres and Arafat got it for the noble yet unsuccessful effort at achieving peace - is John Kerry already a candidate?
He should definitely get credit for this tenacity. Stubborn, dogged, insistent, Kerry achieved his goal after the oh-so-familiar last-minute stumble. the Palestinian leadership was always at its best a minute before negotiations resume or a document needs to be signed. But as expected, Peres knew what he was talking about when he said that “real progress” was made. And the credit for this “real progress” goes to Kerry.
There’s a famous skit by a famous Israeli comedy trio – HaGashahsh HaChiver (ask your Israeli friends and they will tell you all about this fantastic trio) – called "the Churba", the ruin. Two friends are nearing the end of a long exhausting walk, tired, breathless, and sweaty. They are talking about the person who brought them to this destination.
“Without him” – the first guy reminds the second - “we would never have gotten to where we are”.
“Well, where did we get?” the second guy.
“To the ruin!” - is the answer.
Of course, negotiations are no ruin - they are a blessing. One is right to wonder about Kerry’s priorities, and to doubt about his chances of success, and to be mystified by his game plan – but still to congratulate him for a job well done. One can still hope that something will come out of it.
Naturally, being skeptical about the process is both easy and reasonable: even assuming that both sides come to the table with the best of intentions, the minimum that the Palestinians demand seems quite far from the maximum Israel will be willing to agree to. And the support of the Arab League doesn’t mean as much as it used to. And the most crucial Arab country – Egypt – is busy (the region, generally speaking, is busy). And the Obama administration is also busy. And Israel is busy with a fairly ambitious domestic agenda, and quite skeptical regarding the prospects for peace. And Gaza is still held by Hamas.
And yet negotiations are better than what we have now. Or are they? Previous ambitious attempts at reaching a solution for the "conflict" ended up badly. In other words: talks might be better than stalemate, but stalemate is better than failure. That's one reason to enter this phase of talks hopefully but warily.
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Why did the Palestinians decide to play last minute games instead of seizing the opportunity to get back to the negotiation table? Ask the EU. If the Palestinians can pocket achievements without having to sit at the table and face the tough choices they need to face, why negotiate? If they look around and reach the conclusion that more ambitious targets are within reach with the assistance of the international community, why waste time on small prizes such as getting to talk to Netanyahu?
As Palestinians were mulling their strategy for the future, “Senior Palestinian officials had come to view the United States as a significant obstacle and started looking for a way to circumvent it”, as Shlomi Eldar writes. So now the US is facing a dilemma: It can signal to the Palestinians that they can circumvent the US - and to the Europeans that cooperating with such a maneuver will have a cost – or it can try to compete with the EU for Palestinian attention by making concessions. Naturally, the price for such concessions can only come from one wallet: Israel’s.
That’s why the events of recent days, and the US’ response to the Palestinians’ last minute stalling and demands, were important to watch. If the Palestinians were able to significantly gain from this little last minute exercise – if Kerry used his newly found European leverage to put more pressure on Israel – then Israel has reason to worry about the future course of negotiations.
Is this what happened during the weekend? We don't really know, not yet. The conflicting reports haven't yet revealed all the details about the last round of last minute talks, and they have made it hard for the public to assess whether Kerry was playing hard ball (by threatening to pull American support away from the Palestinian Authority), or whether he was making concessions (and giving a letter of intent he didn't intend to give, promising Palestinians to talk about the 1967 lines).
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Two quick points on Israeli politics:
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Ruth Wisse’s No Joke: Making Jewish Humor begins, well, with a joke-
Four Europeans go hiking together and get terribly lost. First they run out of food, then out of water.
“I’m so thirsty”, says the Englishman. “I must have tea!”.
“I’m so thirsty”, says the Frenchman. “I must have wine”.
“I’m so thirsty”, says the German. “I must have beer”.
“I’m so thirsty”, says the Jew. “I must have diabetes”.
I was halfway through this book as the news of a new European written “directive - a directive banning EU members from all cooperation with Israeli entities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - was making Israelis feel angry, as well as helpless. So I went back to the introduction, where Wisse, as she tries to explain the power of the above Jewish joke, talks about the “Jew in mixed European company”, a situation that “introduces an additional level of insecurity” to the already insecure setting of the hike.
The new EU policy fits the same description: in a volatile situation, on the eve on the renewal of talks between Israelis and Palestinians- and while the current state of the Middle East has all regional players jumpy as it is- it adds an additional level of insecurity. Israel has very little trust in Europe, and very low regard for its good intentions. The EU policy makes Israelis feel isolated. At times, such isolation leads to flexibility and to a better grasp of realities, but at times it leads to radicalization and contrarian stubbornness.
Why Europe decided that of all the global conflicts in need of remedy the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the first priority is beyond me, and beyond reason. Many Israelis have little trust of Europe to begin with – and for good reasons– many view European policies as hostile to Israel and generally detached from reality – again, for good reasons – many have little expectation that Europe can play a positive role in bringing peace to this region (they are hardly reliable partners when things get tough). So many Israelis were angry. Alas, anger isn’t a policy. Europe, being Israel’s most important business partner, has a lot of leverage. Israel, being small, isolated, and dependent on European business, has little leverage.
Of course, Israel can make trouble: It can freeze European projects in the Palestinian territories, it can refuse any involvement of Europe in peace making. The “shitty little country”, as French ambassador Daniel Bernard once called Israel, can attempt to further annoy the continent that gave it this “shitty little surprise” (a phrase that was offered to me sarcastically by a former diplomat). But at the end of the day, Europe can do more damage to Israel than the other way around. In fact, that is why many Israelis are so angry. They are angry at their own helplessness amid this diplomatic attack, angry because they can’t really do much to avenge it. Angry and somewhat scared.
Those of them who are scared – I think it’s the majority, but I would readily admit that proving this is tricky - are scared because they don’t see an end to European pressure. In many ways, they view Europe the way they view the Palestinians – with little confidence that the current “conflict” is really about the “occupation” and about the “two state solution”. Ask senior Israelis about Europe’s end game – as I have in recent days – and many will give a response similar to the one you get when you ask about Palestinian intentions: they only pretend to want a two state solution, while their true motivation is the ultimate elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.
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So what can Israel do about the decision?
It can ignore it, in the hope that not much will change because of it, as some people believe. I don’t. Things might not change immediately, but the EU did this to send a message, and the message is 'do-something-or-else'. Hence, if nothing happens 'or-else' will come.
It can try to convince the Europeans to reconsider – as it is doing now. If one believes in the Europeans' good intentions – if one believes that they want to help the peace process rather than hurt Israel - this might work. But since Israeli leaders have doubts, I have to wonder if such an approach seems truly viable to them.
It can resist European pressure and pay a heavy price. But while Israelis would agree to pay a price to preserve national pride, they won't pay a price to preserve every settlement on every distant West Bank hill.
It can cave– although I’m not even sure what “caving” means: should Israel withdraw unilaterally from all the territories occupied in 1967 for the Europeans to lift the new sanctions? If that’s the case, it isn’t going to happen.
It can call upon the Obama administration for help, and tell the American Secretary of State John Kerry to forget about negotiations until Europe is convinced to stop this madness. The trouble is that picking a fight with Kerry when Europe is already up in arms against you might not be the wisest move.
Israel can also work to lower its dependency on European trade, but this will take a long time to achieve if it is at all possible.
What will Israel do?
Probably a combination of all of the above. At this early stage, it isn’t clear if such a strategy will have the desired impact, though.