Einstein had it right: John Kerry’s latest Middle East ‘peace process’

Israel-Palestine talks will continue to fail until they are based on international law, human rights and equality for all, writes Phyllis Bennis

August 21, 2013
6 min read


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

kerryJohn Kerry: spot the pattern

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest foray into Middle East negotiations should be called the Einstein peace process. Doing the same thing over and over again and still expecting different results is the great scientist’s definition of insanity. This time around, all evidence to the contrary aside, indications are that Kerry actually believes this latest iteration of the decades-old industry known as the ‘peace process’ might really accomplish something. But unfortunately for Kerry, his political calculations are about to run aground on the unforgiving shoals of political reality.

Regardless of Kerry’s beliefs, the timing of this latest version of the talks clearly has a lot to do with the crises erupting across the Middle East region. The escalating civil and regional war in Syria, the growing sectarian and religious-secular divides exploding across the region, and even the Washington-backed Egyptian military’s coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, all reflect broader US weakness and failures in the Middle East. The inability of the US to respond strategically to those challenges is certainly part of why plunging back into Israel-Palestine talks, however repetitive of earlier failures, might have seemed a useful move – for distraction, for reassurance of Israel’s backers, for reassertion of a weakened empire’s fading but still extant power.

But despite all those reasons, these talks are doomed to the same failure as the 22 years of failed diplomacy that precedes them.

A one-sided peace

Part of the problem lies squarely in Kerry’s stated US goal for the talks: ‘ending the conflict, ending the claims.’ Not ending the occupation, not ending the siege of Gaza, not ending the decades of dispossession and exile of Palestinian refugees. Not basing diplomacy on United Nations resolutions and the obligations of international law. Only ending the tension, the dispute – regardless of which version of current reality becomes the officially agreed upon final status. Then, in Kerry’s world, all Palestinian claims will disappear, and the Palestinians, even if their internationally-recognised rights remain out of reach, will smile, applaud their brave leaders, and politely agree to suck it up. (Israeli claims of course will not have to end, because Israeli claims, all about ‘security,’ are inherently legitimate and non-negotiable, while Palestinian claims – to self-determination, real sovereignty, equality, return – are always political and up for grabs.)

The appointment of Martin Indyk as US envoy to the talks is a further indication that no one intends to change the framework of the last 22 years of failed US-led diplomacy. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, former deputy research director of AIPAC – the powerful pro-Israel lobby – and co-founder of the AIPAC-linked Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been central to US-controlled Israel-Palestine diplomacy for years. (For years now, it has become common to see Indyk, Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller and others responsible for 22 years of failed US diplomacy in the Middle East, burnishing their ‘veteran’ status as a credential for continuing their careers.)

This round, like before, will ignore international law, and instead be based on the current disparity of power between occupied and occupier. The pro-Israel US arbiter will determine Israeli positions and Israeli-proposed ‘compromises’ to be ’reasonable’. Israel will continue to build and expand settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank based on the thousands of new permits already in place, while offering some kind of short-term partial delay in granting some number of new permits – and that will be called a major compromise. More than 600,000 Israeli settlers will continue to live in huge city-sized Jews-only settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the talks will be rooted in the understanding that in any final arrangement Israel will be allowed to keep all the major settlement blocs and 80 per cent or more of the settlers right where they are.

The meaning of ‘swaps’

Secretary Kerry announced proudly that this round of talks is based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, without mentioning that the ‘new’ US- and Israeli-imposed amendment to that plan stripped it of its potential value – the requirement that Arab normalisation with Israel could come only after ‘full’ withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just solution to the refugee problem based on UN resolution 194 guaranteeing their right of return. Kerry’s new version ignores the refugees (at least so far) and adopts the US-Israeli language on borders (always said as one word) of 1967-borders-with-swaps. Those ‘swaps,’ of course, mean Israel gets to keep all its settlement cities, all its illegal settlers, virtually all the Palestinian water sources, while the Palestinians will be offered some undeveloped desert land abutting Gaza perhaps, or perhaps a proposal to place Palestinian-majority cities inside Israel, such as Nazareth, under the jurisdiction of the to-be-created Palestinian ‘state’. (There is likely to be no compromise on Gaza – Israel’s siege will remain, strengthened by Egypt’s new post-coup government tightening the closure of the Egypt-Gaza crossing at Rafah – and the Palestinian Authority diplomats are not likely to make Gaza a major part of their negotiating strategy.)

Palestinians, of course, will be expected to accept Israel’s ‘reasonable’ compromises as if both sides, occupied and occupier, have the same obligations under international law. (Oh right, international law doesn’t have a role here.) The price, if Palestinians reject any of those oh-so-reasonable proposals, will be US and perhaps global opprobrium for blocking peace.

Right now some developing countries (South Africa, Brazil) are hinting at somewhat more independent positions towards Israel-Palestine. The European Union’s new restrictions on funding settlement entities, made public just before Kerry’s announcement of the new talks and Israel’s acceptance of them, is particularly important, reflecting the impact of even mild sanctions on Tel Aviv. But while the civil society movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) continues to build, it remains unclear how the governments tentatively backing away from US positions would respond to the collapse of the US-controlled talks, especially if the US claim is that the failure is the Palestinians’ fault.

Israeli violations of international law, the Geneva Conventions, UN resolutions and more remain. The US does not set an end to those violations as a goal of these peace talks – let alone as a precondition. If it did, Israel would have to end its occupation of the 1967 territories and recognise the Palestinians’ right of return unilaterally – ending violations shouldn’t require negotiations. That’s why, ultimately, these talks will fail. Until negotiations are based not on US support for Israeli power but on international law, human rights, and equality for all, the ‘peace process’ will fail and will remain an example of Einstein’s insanity.


Phyllis Bennis is Red Pepper’s United Nations correspondent, and a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.


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