Ridicule is often the best response to U.S. Middle East policy. Example: Secretary of State John Kerry is supposed to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process. How? By having Israel release Palestinian prisoners. The number 120 has been mentioned.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happier if Kerry spends all of his time doing that then:
On the somewhat positive side, U.S. policy will focus on economic development of the West Bank which means giving the Palestinian Authority more money. This can be good since it perhaps forestalls violence and buys stability. But let’s have no illusions: “buys” means that PA officials continue to enrich themselves and the real economic problem of the West Bank arises from PA government policy and continued threats of violence which, of course, deter foreign investment.
A. Helping to install new Islamist regimes.
B. Appeasing existing Islamist regimes.
C. Messing up the region generally.
D. Putting pressure on Israel over wider issues. This is especially true since the idea of prisoner releases followed by a three-month deadline for direct talks will produce nothing after three months. Is anything possibly more predictable than that?
For the record, though, let’s talk about what a joke this approach is:
1. If Israel is to release Palestinian prisoners as a “confidence-building” measure and the Palestinians are not even asked to do anything, isn’t that a bit imbalanced?
2. Is the problem that the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have enough confidence in Israel? Doesn’t anyone in the U.S. government remember that confidence-building measures have been going on now for 20 years (since the 1993 Oslo agreement) and confidence stands at zero? Might there not be some structural reason for that?
3. The PA has a new strategy of exploiting its “state” status granted by the UN General Assembly? What’s there to negotiate about from its standpoint, except for Israel to accept full Palestinian statehood in the 1967 borders, uproot all settlements, and hope for the best?
4. Didn’t Israel just release over 1000 Palestinian prisoners to get Gilad Shalit released? Did that build confidence?
5. So if Palestinians commit terrorism including–in the case of the prisoners Kerry is trying to get released–the murder of Israeli civilians, they get to go free because that’s the way to peace? Isn’t that the way toward more Palestinians murdering Israelis so they can one day be released to supposedly help attain peace?
6. After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees to negotiate and the PA refuses to negotiate, U.S. policy will go on as if nothing has happened while the mass media will explain that Netanyahu refused to negotiate. For Israel, the goal of this game is not to win–which is impossible–but to dole out small stakes while focusing on the big issues.
7. Obama’s visit showed he really loves Israel. Now he can get back to what might seem like business as usual. Actually, though, despite the apparent high-priority “peace-making” Obama is now focused on other issues. His policy on this matter is now not a threat but a minor nuisance.
8. But with no real U.S. pressure on the PA–which now proclaims that Obama is an evil Zionist–what possible hope is there for negotiations?
In other words, this is a farce and it is through such farces that the Obama administration will continue to play until January 2015. What’s important, though, is that the administration lets itself fail miserably without putting too much effort and political capital behind it. That this should be a supposed top priority of a secretary of state at a time when Iran is getting nuclear weapons, Syria is burning, Egypt is steaming, etc., is pretty ridiculous in itself. The “good news” is that Kerry and the rest–despite the headlines–are really spending most of their time pursuing a bad policy toward Iran, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, the PA etc. ….
For 20 years now, the diplomats have been playing the confidence-building game. It has yielded nothing. Let me repeat that: nothing.
Most Israelis have confidence that the PA and Hamas leadership loathes Israel, will blame it for every problem, will never accept its legitimacy, and is uninterested in serious negotiations. Just because the West largely censors out the PA’s incitement and intransigence doesn’t mean Israelis are ignorant of what happens every day. True, Israel can work with the PA to maintain a relatively stable status quo, but at some time that will break down for a while again. Israel supports Western aid to the PA, gives help on tax and customs reimbursements, and saves the PA from collapse (at the hands of Hamas) behind the scenes. As for confidence-building, no matter what concessions Israel makes, they will be forgotten in a few months, like the 10-month-long construction on settlements freeze that was supposed to get the PA to come to the table. The PA rejected talks and now everywhere you look you can find people insisting that a new construction freeze will make peace possible and complaining that Isrel has never doing anything for peace. I’m not just making up stuff; I see that kind of thing every day.
True, there are Israelis, say around 10 percent of the electorate (Meretz and the Communists), who believe that if Israel returns to the pre-1967 borders and accepts a fully independent Palestinian state there will be peace. About 5 percent of Israeli (Arab) voters are radical Islamists or Arab nationalists. But they don’t need any confidence-building measures because they believe this as an article of faith. At any rate, it is hard to think of many Palestinian confidence-building actions directed at Israel in the last 20 years.
As for the Palestinians, nothing will convince them to trust anything Israel says or does. After 20 years in which Israel turned the Gaza Strip and all the populated parts of the West Bank over to the PA, accepted the PA receiving billions of dollars in aid as well as arming a security force larger proportionately than anywhere else in the world, and released thousands of prisoners, there is still not a single real Palestinian political party that actually favors a two-state solution as a comprehensive end to the conflict. Indeed, the PA has no confidence at all in Obama, despite all that he has tried to do to help them.
So confidence-building is a joke and a waste of time. Yet here is the U.S. government riding the same old, discredited (except in the mass media and political circles) paradigm. The only comfort is that even high-ranking American officials don’t really believe in this. The whole thing is for show. Presumably, some prisoners will be released to make Kerry happy; the PA will not lift a finger to reciprocate but will then ask for ten or twenty times more while more prisoners are jailed for new attacks. There will be stories about the prisoners being released, and then a few weeks later the U.S. government will ask for Israel to do more. Watch and see.
That’s why I’ll now return to the regional issues that actually matter. Yet of course one must note that far too much of the coverage and debate will continue to be occupied by the long-dead peace process.
What is strange is that a couple of years from now, when everything I have written above is obvious, there will be no change whatsoever in the belief system of the U.S. policy elite. I know this because I’ve been reviewing the last 20 years and see this pattern holds true. Go back and read, for example, about what Obama and his team said in 2009–or his predecessor was saying in 2007-2008–and you see the same mistaken assumptions repeated endlessly.
At this time, such a mirage is not really dangerous except for the disdain and other costs inflicted on those who point out such things. Diplomats will run around; government officials will waste their time; some money will be spent; hundreds of additional students will be educated to revere this silliness; and no progress toward peace will be made. In this era of history, the Israel-Palestinian issue is of no importance in the Middle East. At this moment, what’s important is the Islamist struggle to seize control of most of the region. In the future, the Israel-Egypt or Israel-Iran conflict may become very important indeed.