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Debate: Kerry is partly responsible for the failure of Palestinian–Israeli peace talks | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, as he opened a fourth round of the US-Colombia High-Level Partnership Dialogue (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

After months of US shuttle diplomacy in the region and many rounds of negotiations, both covert and overt, the Palestinian–Israeli negotiations are back at square one. The powers-that-be in Ramallah have been disappointed once more and the US administration has again failed to push the peace process forward, while Israel sees the status quo as an opportunity to continue building settlements and confiscating Palestinian land without repercussions.

There is no doubt that Israel intentionally brought down US Secretary of State John Kerry’s plan even before the main principles had been agreed. That said, Israel’s position on peace and the establishment of the Palestinian state has been clear and unwavering for a long time. It was the US administration’s responsibility to pressure Israel to change in order to find a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian problem.

The main issue was the plan itself. On one hand, it provided the necessary cover for Israel to continue its destruction and abuse; on the other, it gave the Palestinians nothing but disappointment and despair. Kerry was unable to achieve a political breakthrough because of Israel’s obstinate refusal to recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, to stop the building of Israeli settlements, or to divide Jerusalem in return for Palestinian recognition of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. From what we can see in versions of the draft agreement leaked to the Israeli media, Kerry could not find a single Palestinian who would accept the document and its terms on the Jordan Valley, the sovereignty of the Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the refugee situation, and more.

Kerry’s plan offered the Palestinians the equivalent of limited self-governance lacking key elements of national sovereignty, and in practice, would be keeping most of the West Bank under direct Israeli occupation. This means the plan would take into account the realities of the settlements established by Israel since the occupation in 1967, knowing that to this day Israel continues to invest in building settlements. Kerry’s plan explicitly stipulated that the major Jewish settlement blocs in the Israeli West Bank, which contain around 70–80 percent of all settlers, should be annexed to Israel.

What shocked the Palestinian Authority was that Kerry not only wanted to allow Israel to annex major settlement blocs—which are spread over 10 percent of the West Bank territory, but that he also dismissed the need to dismantle settlements which lie outside those particular blocs. He furthermore defended Israel’s right to maintain settlements inside areas that would be part of the Palestinian state.

What makes matters more complicated is that the US side wanted to grant Israel security powers in areas where there are settlements within the borders of a Palestinian state, including the roads that link them to Israel. As a result, the Israeli army would have the right to retain military bases within areas belonging to the Palestinian Authority, to ensure the security of settlers.

Kerry’s plan also explicitly called for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—a position that has been expressed by the leaders of the US administration, particularly US President Barack Obama, on more than one occasion. The gravity of accepting this request not only stems from the fact that it would mean the Palestinians’ implicit waiver of the right of return for refugees, but also because it would mean legitimizing all the activities Israel carries out in order to ensure its Jewish character, whether at a religious, demographic, legal, or cultural level.

Despite its weakness, the Palestinian street will not accept a solution that fails to achieve even the minimum standards of fairness and justice. Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian president, was hoping Kerry would be able to create the necessary conditions for the approval of a framework plan that would have given Abbas both more time and a victory: the release of the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners. This could be employed politically one way or another, in the context of domestic political back-and-forth within the Palestinian scene.

Despite Kerry’s persistent desire to keep negotiations alive, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has escalated the conditions which impact the Americans themselves, such as demanding the release of Jonathan Pollard, the US citizen serving life in prison after being convicted of espionage for Israel in the mid-1980s. This was to have come in exchange for Netanyahu’s approval of an unannounced slowdown in building settlement units outside East Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs, extending negotiations for nine months, and releasing the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners—127 in total—detained since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Having reached this level of Israeli arrogance, Abbas announced a return to the United Nations option, beginning with Palestine’s accession to 15 international agreements and treaties that could help Palestine, a non-member observer state, to fully join the United Nations. Afterwards, the Abbas government announced a reconciliation agreement with Hamas and an agreement to form a national unity government under his leadership. These are the two things that roused the ire of Israel, pushing it to deal a final blow to the negotiations, announcing a halt in discussions.

It is evident that Abbas would not have done what he did if he still held on to a glimmer of hope of reaching a peace agreement with Israel, even if the negotiations were extended for another nine months. Ever since Netanyahu asked Abbas for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for signing the peace agreement, the Palestinian leadership has realized that the Israeli government is not interested in finding a resolution to their dispute. It is unrealistic for Abbas to meet this Israeli condition because, put simply, it indicts the Palestinians as the aggressors ever since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, and perhaps even before. It also means that Palestinians have no historical right to the land—that they must themselves recognize it as land for the Jews, and not their own. What will be the fate of the Palestinians who still live in the occupied territories after Abbas recognizes Israel as a Jewish state? What will ensure they will not be displaced, just as their relatives were more than 66 years ago?

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.