Which aspect of Secretary of State John Kerry’s repetition of the Arab position last week, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the root of Middle Eastern instability, is more remarkable? The fact that Kerry could actually say such a thing, or the fact that, with the exception of the Weekly Standard, such an extraordinary claim could pass almost unnoticed in a media landscape that is rarely short of opinions about the region?
Let’s first revisit what Kerry said. After talks in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and his colleagues, Kerry waxed lyrically as follows: “Peace is in the common interest of everybody in this region. And as many ministers said to me today in the meeting that we had—many of them—they said that the core issue of instability in this region and in many other parts of the world is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Think, for a moment, about that clause “in this region and in many other parts of the world…” During a week in which the total number of deaths accumulated during the civil war in Syria approached 93,000, there is something almost obscene about depicting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the source of regional instability.
Even more breathtaking is the follow on about other regions around the globe. I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impacts the terrorist militias on the Colombian-Venezuelan border who are making millions of dollars out of cocaine trafficking, or how it influences Chinese repression in Tibet, or whether three instead of four million people would have perished in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s myriad wars had, you know, those pesky Israelis stopped building settlements in the West Bank.
I do, however, understand why Kerry made this statement. The State Department needs to place the best possible spin on the announcement that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are to resume after more than two years of gloomy silence. Never mind that Hamas has already said that the PA has no legitimate right to conduct negotiations. Never mind that, almost as soon as Kerry made his announcement, rumors began circulating that the PA is renewing its insistence on placing preconditions on Israel before entering talks. Never mind that other countries in the region are too preoccupied with the crisis in Egypt to get overly excited about another photo opportunity involving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. You must have faith, ladies and gentlemen, that this is the only show in town, the key to the puzzle, the path to transforming the Middle East.
There’s another way of describing this situation. Faced with the brutality and complexity of the Middle East’s other, larger conflicts, western policy has been emasculated. Another intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian arena is therefore all the more attractive, because—irony of ironies—it is the one aspect of the Middle East today that looks manageable, and can thus distract attention from the west’s shameful do-nothing record in the face of the massacres in Syria.
Here’s another irony: the primary reason it looks that way is because Israel, a stable democracy and reliable western ally, is the one party to the conflict that can be relied upon to be cooperative. Israelis are rightly skeptical that their little corner of the world is of almost metaphysical significance to the future of the international order, but they also grasp that a renewed peace process is in their interest. As Finance Minister Yair Lapid pointed out last weekend, Israel isn’t looking for a happy marriage with the Palestinians, but a fair divorce. And a fair divorce means that Israel can finally place responsibility for governing the Palestinians on the Palestinians themselves.
Moreover, if the world wants evidence of Israel’s decent intentions, look no further than the announcement from Yuval Steinitz, the minister in charge of the country’s intelligence and strategic affairs portfolio, that the government is willing to release a significant number of Palestinian prisoners, some of them convicted for monstrous terrorist crimes, in order to smooth the way for negotiations.
Which brings me to the last irony: Kerry was said to be furious that a potential monkey wrench in the works emerged from an unexpected source, in the form of the European Union (EU). The EU believes that Israel must be pressed into concessions, which is why, a few days before Kerry announced what he hopes will be a breakthrough, it issued new guidelines stating that any Israeli “entity” that wishes to be considered for funding or other opportunities must have no direct or indirect links with those Jewish communities established in the territories that came under Israeli control after the 1967 war.
That doesn’t just refer to the West Bank. It refers to the eastern half of the city of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. And it refers as well to the Golan Heights, which the EU apparently wants to return to its rightful owner, the bloodstained dictatorship of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
With this measure, as well as its earlier decision to separately label produce from settlements in Judea and Samaria—in effect, a moral health warning aimed at European consumers—the EU is demanding that Israel return to its 1949 armistice lines before negotiations even begin. Any flexibility that Kerry and his team might desire on the Palestinian side will, as a consequence, be that much more limited, since the PA can now retort that while Washington might not fully grasp the justice of its cause, Brussels certainly does.
Herein lies the risk of renewed peace talks: The Palestinians derail them, much as they did with previous attempts launched by the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations, and the Israelis get the blame.
That’s why John Kerry should be making it clear to the Europeans that the U.S. will not tolerate any EU punitive measures against Israel, should the talks collapse. And he should also make clear that final borders would be addressed at any negotiations, not in advance of them. Frankly, given the warm welcome Israel has given his peace initiative, it’s the least he can do.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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