New hope on Palestine

Obama received Nobel Prize for Peace for promoting international peace. Will he now succeed in the Middle East?

In the midst of widespread political violence, social conflict and virtual wars in the Middle East, Obama administration’s chief diplomat Secretary of State John Kerry achieved a diplomatic victory after months of his shuttle diplomacy in the region. Kerry has visited the Middle East six times since he assumed office in February last and he postponed his return to Washington twice from Jordan during his visit last week. After intense diplomatic engagements with the Arab League members, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and many others, he finally managed to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement to restart final-status negotiations for the establishment of a separate Palestinian State.

President Barack Obama threw his weight behind this effort and spoke to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to back Kerry’s efforts to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations after almost three years of deadlock. Obama received Nobel Prize for Peace before achieving any success in promoting international peace. Will he succeed in his current efforts to bring about Middle Eastern peace?
President Obama ended the Iraq war, but left the country in more chaotic conditions. He has not been able to lead the Arab Spring towards sustainable democracy in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. His leadership in ending the ongoing war in Syria is seriously lacking. His goal to end US military intervention in Afghanistan by 2014 is unlikely to leave Afghanistan in a stable state. If this is the track record, what can be expected of his administration in resolving the longest-running regional conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Several of his predecessors have bravely sought to resolve the Palestinian issue, since this single conflict has seriously impacted regional peace, energy markets, and has inspired Islamic movements of different kinds around the world. Perception of US role in Palestine provided a strong rationale to Al Qaeda’s terror attacks against the US in September 2001. The plight of the Palestinians continues to provide fodder to widespread anti-Americanism in the Arab world.

All kinds of conflict resolutions models and theories have been unsuccessfully experimented here. Keen observers of the Palestinian conflict point out that no US administration desires a complete resolution of the conflict. Washington is accused of deliberately seeking short-term conflict management from time to time, rather than working towards a durable peace-making and peace-building measure. It is undoubtedly unfair to put all the blame on Washington in view of the complexity of the issue. There are a large number of stakeholders, competing interests and historical and emotional issues that contribute towards making peace in the Middle East illusive.

Active participation

All past efforts have borne some fruits. The Camp David Accord of 1978, the Oslo Accord of 1993, the Camp David Summit of 2000 and Annapolis Summit of 2007 were important milestones and their outcomes should not be belittled. Out of the above four efforts, three took place in the United States with active participation of American presidents in deliberations. But interestingly, president Jimmy Carter in 1978, president Bill Clinton in 2000 and president George W Bush in 2007 focussed on this issue towards the closing years or months of their presidencies. Nonetheless, Jimmy Carter succeeded in getting a significant accord out of his efforts, while Clinton’s and Bush’s initiatives belied expectations.

The world will be watching the Obama administration’s current initiative to help kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. John Kerry has got a nod from the Arab League to his so far undisclosed peace proposal. The economic content of his initiative is unique, where he has proposed a $4 billion economic assistance programme for the Palestinian territory aimed at increasing its GDP by about 50 per cent and decreasing unemployment by about two-thirds.

The two sides in the conflict have stuck to their positions on key issues of the status of East Jerusalem, Israeli settlements in West Bank, autonomy vs complete independence of the Palestinian State, return of the refugees to Israel, recognition of Israel as Jewish State and a few others.

The United States is generally viewed with suspicion by the Arabs and the Palestinians as a country that would go to any extent to protect and promote Israeli interests. But the US has been trying hard to project the image of an honest peace broker. The US does not recognise the annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel; it agrees with Palestinian position that the starting point of dialogue should be on the basis of pre-1967 border and not the border after the 1967 war when Israel occupied a large chunk of territories; the US does not consider the Israeli settlements in the West bank as legitimate; and the US, while sympathising with Israeli views on the refugee questions, does not consider it as nonnegotiable.

Nonetheless, the Palestinians and their supporters are on weaker wickets today. Unemployment is very high and the overall economy is foreign aid-dependent in the Palestinian territories. Egypt is undergoing political upheaval. Iran is internationally isolated. Syria is at war with itself. But the bigger problem is disunity among the Palestinians. Hamas has rejected the Kerry proposals. Abbas does not have unanimous support in the faction-ridden PLO.

Any accord will be quickly interpreted as a product of American arms-twisting by the opponents of Abbas. For that matter, Israeli prime minister is also running a fragile coalition government and there are limits to what he can agree on. Nonetheless, the Obama administration’s efforts are a welcome development. It is always better to talk than fight!

(The writer is the chairperson, US Studies Programme, JNU)

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