Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1326, (5-11 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The decent American

John Kerry’s farewell speech as US secretary of state, on Middle East peace, sent shockwaves around the world. But most interesting was Cairo’s muted response, writes Hussein Haridy

The year 2016 left with a bang in the Middle East. Three days before Egyptians, Arabs and peoples around the world began celebrating the dawning of a new year, US Secretary of State John Kerry made headlines, not only in the Arab world, but also throughout the world, and more particularly in Israel.

One month before it is due to leave office, Middle East watchers were guessing what would be the final act of the Obama administration in the Middle East, and more especially in the context of American-Israeli relations, on the one hand, and the peace process between the Arabs (including the Palestinians) and the Israelis. Throughout his two terms at the White House, President Barack Obama tried to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In his first term, from 2009 to 2013, a time that coincided with the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” and its toll on the security and stability of Arab polities, the White House tried to stop Israeli settlement policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, named former Senator George Mitchell as the US special envoy to the Middle East, and, finally, hosted a summit at the White House for four Middle East leaders in September 2010. This summit was attended by Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak (it would be his last visit to Washington before he bowed to popular pressure to leave office a few months later), King Abdullah of Jordan, Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority and Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. The latter had come to power, for the second time, in May 2009.

The purpose of the four-way summit was to push the Palestinians and the Israelis to make peace based on the two-state solution. The Israelis, under Netanyahu, played a double game. On the one hand, paying lip service to this solution, and on the other going full steam ahead with settlement construction on the West Bank. In other words, annexing the land that would be — theoretically, at least — the future Palestine.

Six years later, the world is farther away from the dream of peace than it was six years ago. And the reason is that the extreme right in Israel, spearheaded by Netanyahu, is simply working to sabotage the two-state solution.

Then came the decent American. He had been there all along from the day he was appointed secretary of state in Obama’s second term. During his tenure, he made countless shuttle stops in the Middle East with the aim of working seriously with the Israelis and the Palestinians to reach the dream of a Palestine in secured and recognised borders, living side by side with Israel. He did his best, to say the least. However, political realities in Israel and American strategic priorities in the Middle East changed in the second term of the Obama administration. In the last two years, the peace process in the Middle East fell hostage to the Israeli extreme right as well as to the terrorists of the “Islamic State” group. The Obama White House reordered its priorities in the Middle East and, thus, became preoccupied in ironing out a nuclear deal with the Iranians and leading an international coalition against the “Islamic State”.

The persistent question on everyone’s mind has been whether the Obama administration would make a last ditch effort in the Middle East peace process before leaving office. The answer came in two stages in the last 10 days of December 2016. The first was the abstention of the US permanent representative to the United Nations in voting on the anti-settlement resolution before the Security Council on Friday, 23 December, and the second on Wednesday, 28 December, when Secretary Kerry sprang the biggest surprise of all. A comprehensive speech by a sitting US secretary of state on the parameters for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. You could safely call it the “mother of all speeches” by American secretaries of state since 1967, when Israel launched the June War. It was unprecedented in its transparency and its even-handedness on the necessary foundations of peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. It had the courage to lay blame for the near breakdown of the peace process on the shoulders of the “most extreme right government” in Israel, the present Israeli cabinet. No American official has dared to attack an Israeli government in such a way, at least when still in office.

The Kerry speech was meant to sound the alarm on the present status and future of the two-state solution. According to Kerry, this solution is in jeopardy. He warned against the other alternative, namely, a state for two peoples, the Palestinians and the Israelis. This state, as explained by Kerry, cannot be Jewish and democratic at the same time, after conceding the “Jewishness” of Israel.

He laid out six principles for a future final status agreement. They include secure borders between a future Palestine and Israel; meeting the security needs of Israel; two states for two peoples, one Arab and the other Jewish; Jerusalem to be the recognised capital of two states with unhindered access to holy sites, consistent with the status quo; a just, agreed, fair and realistic solution — including compensation and permanent homes (no mention of where, which is wise) — to the Palestinian refugees problem; and, lastly, the end of conflict by resolving outstanding claims and enabling normalised relations, as in the Arab Peace Initiative.

Where do we go from here? Expectedly, the Israelis were furious and dismissive, particularly, Netanyahu. A firebrand turned into a politician, not a statesman by any measure. He reacted angrily by stating that, “the entire Middle East is in flames, entire countries are collapsing, terrorism is rampant and for an entire hour the secretary of state attacks the only democracy in the Middle East maintaining stability, not only for our Jewish and Arab citizens, but that also contributes to stability in our region.”

Someone has to remind him that Kerry was speaking about the two-state solution and how the Israeli government is bent on destroying this solution by its settlement policy.

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted “stay strong Israel, 20 January is fast approaching.” Moreover, he also said that the Kerry speech “speaks for itself”. An interesting position that is open to all interpretations. The days ahead will provide us with clarity.

The strangest reactions, however, came from Cairo. For one reason or another, almost no one, whether in government or in the media, saw in the speech made by Kerry an indictment of Israelis policies in undercutting the two-state solution, nor a way forward. The reactions were discouraging, to say the least. As if almost everyone was waiting for the newcomer to the Oval Office. But would the new US administration depart from Kerry’s blueprint for peace in the Middle East? A blueprint based on positions held by all previous US administrations since 1967 as to Middle East peace, on the one hand, and on United Nations resolutions concerning Israeli occupation of Arab territories and the West Bank, on the other.

We will witness interesting times in the Middle East in the next few months. Everyone is free to read “interesting” in this context from various angles.

My bet is that, and quoting from Kerry’s speech, the administration of President-elect Trump would work with Netanyahu “to define a new security partnership for the region that would be ground-breaking”. Both would jump over “Israeli-Palestinian peace” on which Secretary Kerry predicated this ground-breaking security partnership that includes “Israel, the United States, Jordan and Egypt, together with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries …”

From all indications, I am afraid, Egypt is treading this path. I hope I am mistaken.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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