Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2013, Pages 12-14

Two Views

Same Old, Same Old “Negotiations”?

The Turkey Under the Table

By Uri Avnery

At a July 29 press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry (r) announces that he has selected former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk to head Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that began later that evening. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

When you have a conflict between two parties, the way to solve it is clear: you put them in the same room, let them thrash out their differences and emerge with a reasonable solution acceptable to both.

For example, a conflict between a wolf and a lamb. Put them in the same room, let them thrash out their differences and emerge with…

Just a moment. The wolf emerges. Now where’s that lamb?

If you have a conflict between two parties who are like a wolf and a lamb, you must have a third party in the room, just to make sure that Party 1 does not have Party 2 for dinner while the talks are going on.

The balance of power between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is like that between a wolf and a lamb. In almost every respect—economic, military, political—Israel has a vast advantage.

This is a fact of life. It is up to the Third Party to balance this somehow.

Can it be done? Will it be done?

I have always liked John Kerry. He radiates an air of honesty, sincerity, that seems real. His dogged efforts command respect. The announcement that he has at long last achieved even the first stage of talks between the parties can give some room for optimism.

As Mao said: A march of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

A meeting of delegates to work out the preliminary details began in Washington July 29. So far so good.

The first question is: who will be the third person? The person named to this delicate task is Martin Indyk, a veteran former State Department officer.

This is a problematic choice. Indyk is Jewish and very much involved in Jewish and Zionist activity. He was born in England and grew up in Australia. He served twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Right-wing Israelis object to him because he is active in left-wing Israeli institutions. He is a member of the board of the New Israel Fund, which gives financial support to moderate Israeli peace organizations and is demonized by the extreme rightists around Binyamin Netanyahu.

Palestinians may well ask whether among the 300 million U.S. citizens there is not a single non-Jew who can manage this job. For many years now it has been the case that almost all American officials dealing with the Israeli-Arab problem have been Jews. And almost all of them later went on to be officials in Zionist think-tanks and other organizations.

If the U.S. had been called upon to referee negotiations between, say, Egypt and Ethiopia, would they have appointed an Ethiopian-American?  

I have met Indyk several times, generally at diplomatic receptions (not U.S. Embassy receptions, to which I was not invited). Once I sent him a letter connected with his name.

The story about the Indyk is well known to anyone versed in Jewish folklore. It was told by a very influential Jewish rabbi, Nachman of Braslaw (1772-1810), who has many followers even today in Israel.

Once upon a time there was this prince who suffered under the delusion that he was an indyk (turkey in Yiddish—from the Hebrew for Indian hen). He was sitting naked under a table and eating only crumbs thrown to him.

After all the doctors failed to cure him, a wise rabbi undertook the task. He stripped off his clothes, sat naked under the table and started acting like an indyk too. Step by step he convinced the prince that an indyk may wear clothes, eat regular food and, in the end, sit at the table instead of under it. That way the prince was cured.

Some might say that this story has a direct bearing on his new job. Two naked Indyks are now under the table, and his job will be to get them to sit at the table and talk seriously about peace.

True, the Palestinians are used to having crumbs thrown to them, but they may now demand some real food.

The chances for any peace negotiations may be assessed by the atmosphere prevailing on both sides, the terminology they use and the internal discussions they conduct.

These are not very inspiring.

In Israel almost nobody uses the word “peace.” Even Tzipi Livni, who will be in charge of the negotiations on our side, talks only about a “final-status agreement” that would “put an end to the conflict,” not “put an end to the occupation.”

Most Israelis ignore the event altogether, believing that Netanyahu’s and Mahmoud Abbas’ sole aim is to abort the negotiations in such a way as to put the onus on the other side. Most Palestinians believe the same. Peace is definitely not in the air.

However, a poll conducted in July showed that a large majority of Israelis—55 to 25 (or, to percentualize it, 69 to 31)—would vote in a referendum for a peace agreement achieved by the prime minister. I have never had any doubt about this.

The idea of holding a referendum about a peace agreement is now being advocated by the right and resisted by the left. I am in favor. Without a solid majority, it would in any case be almost impossible for any government to remove settlements. And I believe that any concrete agreement accepted by a credible Palestinian leadership and recommended by the U.S. will receive a resounding “Yes” in a referendum.

Most of the experts say that Israel should not strive for an endgame agreement, but for a more modest “interim” agreement. They cite the old Jewish adage: “He who wants to catch too much catches nothing.”

I beg to disagree.

First, there is the saying that you cannot cross an abyss in two jumps. No stopping in the middle. We quoted this saying to Yitzhak Rabin after Oslo.

The fatal flaw of the Oslo agreement was that it was all interim. The final aim was not stated. For the Palestinians it was clear that the aim was the setting up of the State of Palestine in all the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. For the Israeli side, this was not clear at all. Absent an agreement on that, every interim step became a point of contention. If you want to go by train from Paris to Berlin, the intermediate stations are different from the ones on the way to Madrid.

Oslo gave up its poor soul somewhere along the way with the endless wrangling about the “safe passage” between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the “third withdrawal” and such.

The only way to proceed is first of all to reach an agreement on the “core issues.” This can be implemented over some time—though I would not recommend that either.

Israeli-Palestinian peace is a huge step in the history of the two peoples. If we have the courage to do it, let’s do it, for God’s sake, without lying down  along the way and crying.

At the moment, the great riddle is: what has Kerry promised each side in secret?

The method seems sound. Since the two sides could not agree on anything, and each demanded that the other start negotiations “without pre-conditions” while posing a lot of pre-conditions themselves, Kerry chose a different way.

It is based on a simple logic: in the American-Israeli-Palestinian triangle, almost all decisions will have to be made two-to-one. In practice, each side needs American support to get its demands accepted.

So, instead of trying to achieve the impossible—Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the basis of the negotiations—America gave each side a promise to support it on certain points.

For example, at a guess: a promise that the U.S. will support the Palestinians on the border issue. The border will be based on the Green Line with reasonable land swaps. Also, on freezing settlements while the negotiations go on. On the other hand, the U.S. will support Israel on the definition of Israel as a “Jewish” state and on the (non-)return of Palestinian refugees.

In the past, the U.S. has broken such promises without blushing. For example, before the Camp David meeting, President Bill Clinton gave Yasser Arafat a solid promise that he would blame neither side for a failure. (Since the meeting was convened without the slightest preparation, failure was predictable.)  After the conference, Clinton put the blame squarely—and wrongly—on Arafat, a vile act of political opportunism, designed to help his wife get elected in New York.

In spite of such experiences, Abbas put his trust in Kerry. It seems that Kerry has the gift of inspiring such trust. Let’s hope he does not squander it.

So, with or without a turkey to keep the wolf from devouring the lamb, and in spite of all the past disappointments, let’s hope that this time real negotiations get going and lead toward peace. The alternative is too dismal to contemplate.


 

Uri Avnery, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, is a founder of Gush Shalom, <www.gush-shalom.org>.

 

Reviving the Israel-Palestine Negotiations: The Indyk Appointment

By Richard Falk

Appointing Martin Indyk as Special Envoy to the ongoing peace talks was to be expected. It was signaled in advance. And yet it is revealing and distressing.

The only other candidates considered for the job were equally known as Israeli partisans: Daniel Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel before becoming commissioner of Israel’s Baseball League, and Dennis Ross, co-founder in the 1980s (with Indyk) of the AIPAC-backed Washington Institute for Near East Policy; he handled the 2000 Camp David negotiations on behalf of President Bill Clinton.

The winner among these three was Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel (1995-97; 2000-01), onetime AIPAC employee, British born, Australian educated American diplomat, with a long list of pro-Israeli credentials.

Does it not seem strange for the United States, the convening party and the unconditional supporter of Israel, to rely exclusively for diplomatic guidance in this concerted effort to revive the peace talks on persons with such strong and unmistakable pro-Israeli credentials?

What is stranger, still, is that the media never bothers to observe this peculiarity of a negotiating framework in which the side with massive advantages in hard and soft power, as well as great diplomatic and media leverage, needs to be further strengthened by having the mediating third party so clearly in its corner. Is this numbness or bias? Are we so accustomed to a biased framework that it is taken for granted, or is it overlooked because it might spoil the PR effect of reviving the moribund peace process?

John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, whose show this is, dutifully indicated when announcing the Indyk appointment that success in the negotiations will depend on the willingness of the two sides to make “reasonable compromises.” But who will decide on what is reasonable? It would be criminally negligent for the Palestinians to risk their future by trusting Mr. Indyk’s understanding of what is reasonable for the parties. But the Palestinians are now potentially entrapped. If they are put in a position where Israel accepts, and the Palestinian Authority rejects, “(un)reasonable compromises,” the Israelis will insist they have no “partner” for peace, and once more hasbara will rule the air waves.

It is important to take note of the language of reasonable compromises, which as in earlier attempts at direct negotiations, excludes any reference to international law or the rights of the parties. Such an exclusion confirms that the essential feature of this diplomacy of negotiations is a bargaining process in which relative power and influence weighs heavily on what is proposed by and acceptable to the two sides. If I were advising the Palestinians, I would never recommend accepting a diplomatic framework that does not explicitly acknowledge the relevance of international law and the rights of the parties. In the relation of Israel and Palestine, international law could be the great equalizer, soft power neutralizing hard power. And this is precisely why Israel has worked so hard to keep international law out of the process, which is what I would certainly recommend if in Tel Aviv’s diplomatic corner.

Can one even begin to contemplate, except in despair, what Binyamin Netanyahu and his pro-settler cabinet consider reasonable compromises? On what issues can we expect Israel to give ground: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security?

It would have been easy for Kerry to create a more positive format if he had done either of two things: appointed a Palestinian or at least someone of Middle Eastern background as co-envoy to the talks. Rashid Khalidi, President Obama’s onetime Chicago friend and neighbor, would have been a reassuring choice for the Palestinian side. Admittedly, having published a book a few months ago with the title Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Undermined Peace in the Middle East, the appointment of Khalidi, despite his stellar credentials, would have produced a firestorm in Washington. Agreed, Khalidi is beyond serious contemplation, but what about John Esposito, Chas Freeman, Ray Close? None of these alternatives, even Khalidi, is as close to the Palestinians as Indyk is to the Israelis, and yet such a selection would have been seen as a step taken to close the huge credibility deficit. Yet such credibility remains outside the boundaries of the Beltway’s political imagination, and thus inhabits the realm of the unthinkable.

It may be that Kerry is sincere in seeking to broker a solution to the conflict, yet this way of proceeding does not. Perhaps, there was no viable alternative. Israel would not come even to negotiate negotiations without being reassured in advance by an Indyk-like appointment. And if Israel had signaled its disapproval, Washington would be paralyzed.

The only remaining question is why the Palestinian Authority goes along so meekly. What is there to gain in such a setting? Having accepted the Washington auspices, why could they not have demanded, at least, a more neutral or balanced negotiating envoy? I fear the answer to such questions is “blowin’ in the wind.”

And so we can expect to witness yet another charade falsely advertised as “the peace process.” Such a diversion is costly for the Palestinians, beneficial for the Israelis. Settlement expansion and associated projects will continue, the occupation with all its rigors and humiliations will continue, and the prospects for a unified Palestinian leadership will be put on indefinite hold. Not a pretty picture.

This picture is made more macabre when account is taken of the wider regional scene, especially the horrifying civil war in Syria and the bloody military coup in Egypt. Not to be forgotten, as well, are Israeli threats directed at Iran, backed to the hilt by the U.S. Congress, and the terrible legacy of violent sectarian struggle that is ripping Iraq apart. Naturally, there is speculation that some kind of faux solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict would release political energy in Washington that could be diverted to an anti-Assad intervention in Syria and even an attack on Iran. We cannot rule out such infatuations with morbid geopolitical projects, but neither should we assume that conspiratorial scenarios foretell the future.


Richard Falk, an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years, is U.N.  special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. He blogs at <http://richardfalk.wordpress.com>, where this article was first posted June 30.

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