Kerry process, round two?

by Jamie

First published: 15 December, 2014 | Category: Foreign policy

US Secretary of State John Kerry's last attempt to negotiate an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict collapsed in April 2014. Kerry had sought to exploit Palestinians’ unprecedented isolation to foist Israel's preferred terms of settlement upon them and on that basis to resolve the conflict. It did not take him long to extract acquiescence from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; this significant achievement notwithstanding, the initiative fell apart in the face of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s surprise repudiation of his country’s own long-standing bottom line demands. But as Norman Finkelstein noted in a post-mortem, the US reaction suggested that Kerry was, if down, determinedly not out:

[It may be that Kerry has now] decided to throw in the towel on the Israel-Palestine conflict and pursue his ‘legacy’ elsewhere. But that doesn't seem to have happened. When Hamas and Fatah announced a government of national unity earlier this month, the US could have refused to recognise it, in which case the diplomatic process would have been over. It didn’t do that. Instead, what I predicted would happen is happening: behind the scenes, the US and the EU are turning up the heat on Israel.

There are indications that Round 2 of the Kerry process may be at hand. 

Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Tobias Ellwood informed British MPs in late October that ‘we are picking up the agenda that was arrived at in April with John Kerry’. In December, he revealed that Kerry is ‘about to embark on a new round of talks’.

Pressure is building across Europe and in the United Nations for bolder measures against Israel. After the Swedish government recognised Palestine in October, parliaments in Britain, Ireland, France and Portugal passed motions calling on their respective governments to follow suit. Belgian lawmakers and the European parliament are next in line. Meanwhile, Jordan has circulated a Palestinian proposal to the UN Security Council (UNSC) calling for an end to Israel’s occupation by November 2016. France, Britain and Germany are preparing an alternative draft. Media coverage presents the two initiatives as opposed, but there is cause for scepticism about this: it is implausible that either the Palestinian Authority, or Jordan, or the three European powers will have embarked on these ventures in the absence of at least tacit US approval, while the Palestinian Foreign Minister has already indicated that he is prepared to ‘relate positively to the French draft resolutions’. Moreover, does Jordan really not have more pressing priorities at this moment than challenging the US over Palestine? It may be—to speculate—that the function of the Jordanian-Palestinian draft is to create political space for the US to refrain from vetoing the European draft. 

Back to Finkelstein, speaking in June, shortly after the Kerry talks' collapse:

[The] US government now has a significant difference with Israel. The crisis in US-Israel relations will not affect the military and economic tracks, because those have their own independent momentum.  US economic aid and military cooperation with Israel will continue at high levels. On the narrowly political level, however, there is a real rupture. What we're waiting for now is a political crisis that will jolt Israel.  This could take various forms. For instance, there might be a crisis on the ground that goes to the UN Security Council, which produces a severe condemnation of Israel with a US abstention.  

The US is at present conspicuously refusing to rule out endorsing or abstaining on a Security Council resolution. Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a prominent Kerry supporter during the previous round of talks, suggests that the US ‘is not eager to use its veto’, while an unnamed senior Western diplomat comments: ‘There is a window of opportunity now, there is a willingness from them [i.e. the US] to consider … options at the Security Council’. 

If we can't know to what extent this growing pressure has been coordinated with the US, the administration is clearly making intensive efforts to manage it. Kerry has scheduled meetings with Netanyahu and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, as well as Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and Arab League foreign ministers, to discuss paths forward. He has also been in contact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and at the climate conference in Peru last Thursday he and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius reportedly discussed a potential European Security Council proposal. The French government has recently called for endorsing a set of principles at the UN Security Council that would form the framework for future negotiations, and mooted an international conference comprising the UNSC permanent member states, the Arab League and the European Union to facilitate this.

But to what end are American efforts directed? Is the US simply looking to ‘defuse’ tension and avoid having to cast a lone veto at the Security Council? Or will Kerry seek to harness European and Arab League frustration to re-double pressure on Israel ahead of its elections in March, in preparation for renewed talks? It is too early to know. But this is what he said on Friday:

There are a lot of different folks pushing in different directions out there, and the question is can we all pull in the same direction… That’s what we’re looking at.

The upshot for Palestinians and their supporters is that now is no time for complacency. Kerry’s plan would see Israel annex its major settlement blocs on critical chunks of the West Bank, at the expense of Palestinian viability and in violation of international law. It failed last time thanks only to Netanyahu’s rejectionism. But this rejectionism was by most accounts pragmatic rather than principled, while ahead of next year's elections an explicitly pro-Kerry bloc has already coalesced.

I am working on a more detailed post identifying strategic lessons from the recent parliamentary debates about recognising Palestine. In the meantime, a brief comment in closing. I have written elsewhere that:

Palestine faces a future of permanent occupation or partition. Partition can take one of two forms: the Kerry proposal, with Israel annexing the major settlement blocs at the expense of Palestinian viability, or the international consensus two-state settlement endorsed by the International Court of Justice and the United Nations General Assembly, which designates the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza as the territory for the exercise of Palestinian self-determination.

These alternatives exhaust the realms of political possibility, and a defeat for one is a gain for the others. Except among certain academics and BDS activists, the demand for dismantling Israel has no international resonance. This could be seen from the House of Commons debate [on recognising Palestine]…, where even Palestine’s staunchest supporters made a point of affirming Israel’s legitimacy as a state. By holding fast to a demand that has no prospect of winning a broad constituency, one state advocates not only consign the solidarity movement to irrelevance. By frustrating the two-state solution, they increase the likelihood of palpably worse alternatives. With their gazes riveted on a one-state utopia, they help create a bantustan.

Recent European steps to escalate pressure on Israel are potentially compatible with both the Kerry plan and a two-state settlement based on international law. That is to say, they are up for grabs. The task now is not to posture and sneer, but to mobilise in order to extract the maximum political gain from these developments. At any rate, Kerry appears to think so.

Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.

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