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Kerry's Faults: 4 Errors That Undermined Middle East Peace

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had high hopes of bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together, but fell into the same traps as other would-be saviors of the Middle East of the past.

Kerry and Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 9, 2013
Kerry and Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 9, 2013
Benjamin Barthe

PARIS - By refusing to come out in favor of the Israelis or the Palestinians, plunging the region into a new crisis that could be fatal to the talks relaunched last July, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did a disservice to peace in the Middle East.

In this chapter of the regional saga, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, remained faithful to their respective original positions. The one who failed his mission is the American man in the middle, and it can be explained in four key points.

Colonization at full capacity. In 2013, the number of houses under construction in the West Bank’s settlements increased by 123% compared to 2012, while inside Israel, over the same period, the increase did not go over… 4%! The first reason for the current turmoil lies within these two numbers from the Israeli statistics office. Kerry did not manage to stop or even slow down the steamrolling policy of settlement expansion. Allowing this to happen has led to two serious consequences: he de facto sabotages the two-state solution along the 1967 lines, which is the most realistic formula to resolve the conflict; and he perpetuates the impunity of which the Israeli land settlement system has taken advantage. Since July, 56 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, 146 houses destroyed and 550 attacks by settlers have been reported. During the same period, five Israelis have been killed.

Europeans left out. John Kerry was not ready to rebalance the lack of symmetry inherent to any negotiation between an occupier and an occupied, but he could have delegated this task to the Europeans. When Brussels announced, at the resumption of the talks, new directives excluding the Jewish settlements from the EU-led cooperation programs, it augured a distribution of roles: Europe applies the stick, the U.S. offers the carrot. But Kerry soon gave in to Washington’s unfortunate habit of handling the peace process one-on-one with Israel.

Symbol of this regression: the return as special envoy for the Middle East of Martin Indyk, a former member of the pro-Likud lobby Aipac who was already central during the calamitous Oslo process. The European chancelleries could have shown initiative by accelerating the reflection on the labelling of products from the settlements. But the 28 EU members are reluctant to pressure Israel.

Overshadowed international law. In such a difficult environment, the Palestinians cling to international law. If they accepted that the negotiations would not focus on an integral peace plan, which is considered premature by Israel, but on a simple framework agreement, it was in the hope that it would include the terms of the historical references of the peace process, including the 1967 borders established by the United Nations Resolution 242.

But instead of concentrating on this corpus, an impassable base for any peace agreement, Kerry let himself get trapped by Netanyahu into a pointless discussion on two unacceptable points for the Palestinians: the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and maintaining Israeli troops in the Jordan valley. It was only in the middle of March that the Secretary of State dared to declare that the polarized debate on the Jewish state question was a “mistake.” Too late.

Before he relaunched the negotiations, did his advisors show him the notorious amateur video, dating from 2001 and available on the Internet, where Netanyahu, with a family of settlers and unaware that he was being filmed, is bragging about having derailed the Oslo process? In front of the settlers, who are worried about the West’s reaction, he proudly explains: “I know the United States, it’s something we can easily move in the right direction…”

No deadline or repercussions for failure. Kerry could have tried to bypass Netanyahu's delaying maneuvers by refusing any extension of the process and by issuing a warning that the party responsible for the blockage would expose itself to repercussions. He could have signified that in case of Israeli obstruction, the U.S. would no longer oppose the Palestinian Authority’s membership in the United Nations, in the continuity of its recognition as a non-member state of the UN in 2012.

The idea is to make sure that the Palestinians would not be the only losers in case of a breakdown of talks. But, in accordance with the mantra of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had stated in Oslo that “there is no sacred date,” the April 29 deadline is no longer valid. At this date, either the dialogue will have resumed without any extra chances of succeeding, or it will be declared dead, without any consequences being drawn from it.

One by one, Kerry has repeated all the errors of his predecessors. As if American diplomacy was incapable of moving beyond the Oslo paradigm, though it has been invalidated from the inside. “When you are serious about peace, call us,” James Baker, one of his predecessors, had eventually said, exasperated by Israeli resistance. That was in 1990. How long can the Palestinians still wait before Netanyahu picks up his phone?

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