We have grown used to that phenomenon in which a US president or some senior members of his administration holds forth on the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general in a fairer way, after leaving office. Often they speak of Israel’s overbearing manner in its dealings with the US and, sometimes, the rudeness of the Israeli prime minister, himself, be he Shamir or Sharon. But generally, by that time it is too late. What the former officials revealed in their memoirs or interviews could not contribute to building a just and comprehensive peace in this conflict plagued region.
This is why one is all the more amazed by the recent actions of the Obama administration which rolled up its sleeves and took a number of steps that had previously been unimaginable and, moreover, that came only days ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. The most important steps, as concern this region, are two: the decision to abstain in the vote on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that condemns Israeli settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s comprehensive speech last Wednesday (28 December) on the subject of Israeli settlement activities in which he also outlined a set of basic principles for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At one level, neither of the two steps are entirely new. They are extensions of resolutions adopted by the Security Council before and in the vote on which Washington also abstained, as was the case during the Reagan administration. They also echo the “Clinton parameters” for a solution that the former president presented to the Palestinians and Israelis on 24 December 2000 and that he redrafted and proposed again before leaving the White House on 20 January 2001. Nevertheless, there is a considerable element of the new, not so much in the broad outlines but in important details which, as the saying goes, is often where the devil lurks, although if some wisdom prevails then angels may appear instead.
Given all the blood that has been shed in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and all the ink that has been consumed in penning the minutes of negotiations, talks, secret sessions and publicised ones, the first and second peace processes (some speak of a process and a half), there was a need for someone to digest all this into another document to add to previous ones, perhaps the most important of which is the Arab Peace Initiative that offered Israel a major political and strategic deal on the basis of the principle of land for peace. The details in this document also add important dimensions to the question of “security”, supplementing the narrower Palestinian-Israeli dimensions through Egyptian and Jordanian contributions, on the one hand, and by placing the principles of a settlement in the broader framework of regional security and the dangers that threaten all parties, whether the source of the danger is terrorism, Iran or other threats.
Regardless of what is new or old about it, the “Kerry document” places everything in the context of the defence of Israel and Israeli security. It held, as the Israeli left and centre have long argued, that the current realities shaped by the settlement activities and other Israeli measures threaten put an end to the possibility of the two-state solution. This solution has been on the table since the outset of the conflict in 1947, when UN General Assembly Resolution 181 called for the partition of Palestine into a state for the Jews and another for the Arabs. But realities on the ground have begun to dictate that there can only be one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Either it be one in which Jews oppress the Arabs and trigger resistance, or one in which Israel accepts the idea of full equality which, before long, would bring an end to the Jewish state because of the Arabs’ demographic superiority. At present there are 12 million people between the river and the sea. Half are Israelis; half are Palestinians.
The argument is not new, even in Israel where there are some sensible people who maintain that by persisting in the same policies Israel is taking the shortest route into a predicament in which it will have to choose between its Jewish character and its ostensible “democratic” one.
Apart from surprise, the Arab reaction to these last minute developments has, so far, been to resign themselves to the notion that as long as nothing new was said then this is probably no more than part of the Democratic-Republican conflict inside the US. Before leaving the White House, Obama wants to make life difficult for the Trump administration whether with respect to its relations with the Middle East or its relations with Russia (through new sanctions, expulsion of Russian diplomats, attempting to cast doubts on Trump’s legitimacy by playing up on the alleged Russian hacking of the US presidential elections). But even if this is the case, there are some factors in these new developments that could be beneficial for the Arabs. At the same time, it is preferable to avoid becoming immersed in Trump’s expected approach to the Middle East which is based on absolute and unqualified support for Israel (he has already offered donations to Israeli settlements). The Trump approach will follow exactly the same tactic as that pursued by Netanyahu and others before him, which is to talk about direct negotiations and after that, nothing. No frame of reference, no balanced agenda, no reciprocity between Israeli demands and Arab demands.
The Arabs should, firstly, fully grasp the substance of the recent Security Council resolution followed by Kerry’s lengthy and detailed speech.
Secondly, they should project the hard truths about the Arab-Israeli conflict on a regional reality in which further conflicts and complexities cannot be overlooked because of the potential dangers they pose. Thirdly, they must bear in mind that it is impossible to resolve the other conflicts in the region while keeping the Arab-Israeli conflict, alone, unresolved and perpetually poised to stir trouble for the region as it has always done or to undermine settlement processes for other conflicts that have surpassed the Arab-Israeli wars in violence and brutality. Fourthly, the entire question, in whole and each part, has as much to do with Palestinian-Israeli relations as it does with Arab relations with the Hebrew state. Therefore, negotiations cannot just be between Israel and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation). They must also be between Israel and the Arab states concerned. The first set of negotiations would attempt to apply the principles outlined by the Clinton parameters and the “Kerry document”; the second would focus on the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative.
This two-tiered approach is not new. It was applied in the Madrid Conference in which negotiating processes were divided so as to permit for direct bilateral negotiations and multilateral ones. The first dealt with the issues resulting from the Israeli occupation of Arab territories; the second with issues related to the future of the relations between the peoples of this region.
Naturally, there is more we need to do, in order to turn this not insignificant American step into concrete progress. Nor do we have to wait to see how the US internal rivalry pans out in order to begin work. What we should not do is sit back and shrug our shoulders at UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and the Kerry initiative. This is hardly the most sensible attitude to take in a region that has experienced so much bloodshed for more than six decades.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.