The Middle East Impasse: With No Tricks Up American Sleeves, the Kerry Negotiations Break Down

By Milner, Arthur | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Summer-Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Middle East Impasse: With No Tricks Up American Sleeves, the Kerry Negotiations Break Down


Milner, Arthur, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


About a year ago, the United States started pressuring Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to restart peace negotiations. No one knows why. Israel had expressed no such desire. The Palestinians and everyone else thought: What's the point? No one believed the Americans would ever pressure Israel sufficiently to get a reasonable compromise. Besides, no one was pushing the United States to get back into the ring. Presumably, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama thought something could be achieved. Were they naive, or did they have a few aces up their sleeves?

With the negotiations at an end, we can now answer that question. There were no aces up American sleeves. Draw your own conclusions.

Obama had tried to get things going in his first term. In Cairo, he promised the Arab world a settlement freeze. But Israel paid no attention and, instead, announced new construction in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's official visit. When Obama stated that future negotiations would be based on the 1967 borders, Netanyahu got 42 standing ovations from the U.S. Congress for telling Obama to stuff himself.

The PA asked for a settlement freeze but got the release of prisoners instead. They agreed to enter negotiations. There is suspicion that a few high-profile Western boycotts of Israeli projects in the West Bank convinced Israel to comply.

The Jewish State

The basis of the Kerry negotiations, like all negotiations before, is the "two-state solution." There is near-universal agreement on what that would look like: two states, based on the pre-1967 borders with mutually accepted land swaps; a shared or split Jerusalem; and some recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, including compensation and limited repatriation. This is Canada's official position. The only significant groups that reject this plan are Israelis, evangelical Christians and Palestinian radicals and their supporters (see box).

Many in Israel's coalition government reject a Palestinian state out of hand. Prime Minister Netanyahu once said he accepted the two-state solution, but he has, during these negotiations, stated that Israel will not give up the Jordan Valley for 40 years, accept refugees or remove a single settler, and that Jerusalem will remain Israel's undivided, eternal capital. He has thrown every wrench he can find into the spokes.

The latest wrench--and the big discussion of late--is Netanyahu's demand that the PA recognize Israel as the Jewish State. It's an odd demand. On one hand, it's obvious--so obvious that, until recently, it never occurred to Israel to demand it. Peace treaties were signed with Jordan and Egypt with no such declaration, and no other country recognizes or has been asked to recognize Israel as the Jewish State. The Palestinians have recognized Israel several times, but now the goalposts have been moved.

Palestinians are loath to recognize Israel as a Jewish State because they fear it would amount to abandoning Palestinian refugees' right of return and the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality with Jewish citizens. Are their fears justified? Who knows? Israel has never defined what it means by Jewish State.

Palestinians, like most people in the world, regard Jews as adherents to a religion. Secular Israeli Jews (a shrinking majority of Jews in Israel) tend to see themselves as a nation or people. For them, Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State is equivalent to Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. But it's not: You don't have to change religions to become a Palestinian or a Canadian. Imams and/or priests do not control who gets to be a Palestinian or a Canadian, but rabbis (and under Israeli law, only Orthodox rabbis) do decide who gets to be a Jew.

Negotiations were going nowhere because Israel demanded everything and gave nothing, refusing even to discuss borders. Then Netanyahu announced cancellation of the fourth prisoner release. …

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