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The Magnificent Kerry

4 February 2014

The Magnificent Kerry

By Gwynne Dyer

John Kerry has been US Secretary of State for precisely one year, and he has already 1) rescued President Obama from his ill-considered promse to bomb Syria if it crossed the “red line” and used poison gas; 2) opened serious negotiations with Iran on its alleged attempt to build nuclear weapons; and 3) taken on the job of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Getting Obama off the hook was useful, and may yet lead to the US ending its support for the insurgency in Syria, which at this point would probably be the least bad outcome. Opening negotiations with Iran was long overdue, and makes the nightmare prospect of an American or a joint US-Israeli air attack on Iran daily less likely. But even King Solomon and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), sitting jointly in judgement on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could not broker a peace accord there.

Kerry is indefatigable. He has been to Israel/Palestine eleven times in the past year, and spent as much as a hundred hours face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas or their close advisers. Unlike all the previous “brokers”, he has been astoundingly discreet: not a hint of what has been said in private has leaked into the public domain. And yet there is almost no hope of a real peace deal.

If persistence in the face of all the odds were enough, Kerry would be the man who finally made it happen. (Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon recently complained that his approach is “obsessive and messianic.”) But Kerry has no leverage: he has to rely on the desire of the two leaders to make the “peace process” work, and it just isn’t there; not, at least, on any terms that both would find acceptable.

The list of deal-breakers includes almost every topic under discussion: the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, whether Jerusalem can be the joint capital of Israel and Palestine, whether Israel can maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes, and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise it as an explicitly Jewish state.

This last demand, which was only raised in the past couple of years, seems deliberately designed to be unacceptable to the Palestinians. Not only are they required to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state (which they have already done), but also to give their blessing to the ethnic and religious character of that state.

It is not normal in diplomacy for one state to comment upon the internal arrangements of another, let alone to give them its public support. Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally and supporter, does not officially recognise it as a “Jewish state.” The Israeli demand is an attempt to rub the Palestinians’ noses in their defeat, and why would you set out to do that if you really wanted a deal?

The Palestinian insistence on a “right of return,” however rooted in natural justice, is equally self-defeating in practice. Everybody knows that a peace deal must mean compensation for the refugees of 1948 and their descendants, not a general right of return to what is now Israel, for that really would mean the end of the “Jewish state.” But no Palestinian leader has ever dared to say so out loud.

So why, then, has John Kerry embarked on his quixotic mission to make the “peace process” work? It has been effectively dead for at least a dozen years, although it remains unburied because the pretense that it is still alive allows everybody to avoid hard decisions. But Kerry, with his nine-month deadline to achieve a comprehensive “final-status agreement” (which expires in April), is taking it seriously.

His own explanation is lyrical but opaque: “I believe that history is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” But the business about “making history” – that, perhaps, is sincere. Kerry has had a long and interesting career as a senator, and even took a shot at the presidency, but this is probably his last big job, and he wants to make his mark.

As the reality of what he is up against strikes home, he has scaled back his ambitions a good deal. For some months now he has been talking about a more modest “framework” deal by April that would establish a set of basic principles for further talks. Such deals commit nobody to anything, and are therefore a popular way of pretending to make progress, but he’ll be lucky to get even that.

The French general Pierre Bosquet, watching the suicidal charge of the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854, said: “It is magnificent, but it is not war. It’s madness.”

Kerry’s foredoomed quest for a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is magnificent too, in its own peculiar way, but it’s not diplomacy. It’s hubris.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“It is…deal”; and “As the…that”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



Netanyahu’s Options

26 March 2010

Netanyahu’s Options

By Gwynne Dyer

By the time Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu left Washington on Wednesday night, after postponing his departure twice, there was general agreement in the American media that his visit had been disastrous. Congress gave him its uncritical support, of course, but his meeting with President Barack Obama went into overtime and ended without a photo op, a joint statement, or even a public handshake.

At the same time, the British government was warning its citizens that they risk having their passports cloned if they travel to Israel. Twelve members of the Israeli hit-team that murdered Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January used passports that had been cloned by Israeli officials at Ben Gurion airport from genuine British passports.

“Such misuse of British passports is intolerable,” said Foreign Secretary David Miliband. “The fact that this was done by a country which is a friend, with significant diplomatic, cultural, business and personal ties to the UK, only adds insult to injury.” He then ordered the expulsion of the head of the intelligence services at the Israeli embassy in London.

The French and German governments may do the same thing, for the Israeli assassins in Dubai used French and German passports too. But none of that will bother most Israelis, since they already see the Europeans as hypocritical and disloyal. “I don’t want to offend dogs on this issue, since some dogs are utterly loyal,” said Aryeh Eldad, leader of the far-right HaTikva Party. “Who are [the British] to judge us on the war on terror?”

But falling out with the loyal American dogs is a different matter entirely. Israel depends very heavily on the United States for weapons, financial aid and diplomatic backing, and now Netanyahu finds himself in a contest of wills with Barack Obama.

His problems with Washington became acute with the announcement, during Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this month, that 1,600 more homes for Jews would be built in occupied East Jerusalem. It was an “insult to the US,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as it deliberately sabotaged American attempts to restart peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

That, at any rate, is Washington’s interpretation of the event, and it certainly does resemble Netanyahu’s tactics during his previous stint as prime minister in 1996-1999. His goal has always been to expand Israeli settlement and control in the occupied territories and ward off any peace deal that hinders that process. So now that he finds himself in a direct confrontation with the White House, what are his remaining options?

One, obviously, is simply to give in and stop expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, INCLUDING EAST JERUSALEM, while peace talks with the Palestinians proceed. That would cause the immediate collapse of the far-right coalition government Netanyahu now leads, but an alternative coalition including the centrist Kadima Party would not be hard to construct.

The main obstacle to that option is Netanyahu himself. Despite his reputation as a slippery character, he has always been rock-solid on the issue of land, particularly with regard to Jerusalem. “Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital,” he said in Washington on Monday – and for him, that includes the eastern part of Jerusalem that Israel conquered in 1967 and subsequently “annexed.”

International law does not allow that, and other countries do not recognise it. More than forty years after the “annexation,” not one foreign embassy has moved up from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But Netanyahu has nailed his colours to the mast on this subject, so unless Obama gives in the Israeli-American split will continue.

What other options does Netanyahu have? He can just wait for the wind to change in Washington. The mid-term Congressional elections get closer by the month, and Democratic members of Congress who fear that the powerful pro-Israeli lobby will subsidise the campaigns of their opponents will be begging Obama to let Netanyahu have his way.

It would be humiliating for the White House, but it’s almost traditional for American presidents to be humbled by Israel and they all survived the experience. And if, by some chance, Obama sticks to his guns and the confrontation really becomes a political liability for Netanyahu, he can always change the subject entirely by attacking Iran.

That is what he’d really like to do anyway. Whenever possible, he changes the subject from the thorny question of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the more comfortable topic of Iran’s alleged drive for nuclear weapons. This is an area in which Israeli and American views are very close (which is not to say that they are necessarily accurate).

Changing the subject in that way would require unilateral Israeli air strikes against Iran, and lots of them. Washington would be privately furious that Israel had embroiled it in a dangerous confrontation, but publicly it would have to back Israel’s play. So perhaps we should hope that Obama backs down at some earlier stage in the proceedings.

After all, it’s not as if the Israeli-Palestinian “proximity talks” that this confrontation is all about were actually going to produce anything useful.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“International…continue”; and “That is…accurate”)

Obama’s Middle Eastern Adventure

27 January 2010

Obama’s Middle Eastern Adventure

By Gwynne Dyer

Barack Obama had worse failures to address in his State of the Union message on Wednesday (January 27), but a few days before he owned up to the most foolish miscalculation that his administration had made in its first year in power. In an interview with Joe Klein of Time magazine, he confessed that he had not understood the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

“The Middle East peace process has not moved forward….For all our efforts at early engagement, (it) is not where I want it to be,” Obama said. “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

But why didn’t he anticipate them? Is there really nobody in Washington who could have told Obama the truth about the Middle East? Every non-American commentator who knows anything about the region has been saying for the past year that there is absolutely no chance of a breakthrough in the “peace process” at the present time. In fact, it is probably dead for a generation.

The answer, I fear, is that there really is nobody in Washington who can tell President Obama the truth about the region. Nobody, that is, who would be allowed through the cordon of academic “experts”, think-tank pundits and State Department and Pentagon officials who devoutly believe in an orthodoxy that sounds quite reasonable on the Potomac, even if it makes no sense whatever in terms of Middle Eastern reality.

For example, Obama wanted the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to enter direct peace talks with the Israeli government, even though he knew that Abbas only ruled around 60 percent of the Arab population of the occupied territories. The other 40 percent, in the Gaza Strip, have for the past several years been under the control of the radical Islamist movement Hamas, which rejects a permanent peace settlement with Israel.

So what was Abbas going to do? Sign a peace treaty with Israel, and get the Israeli army to impose it on the Gaza Strip? He certainly hasn’t the military forces to do it himself. And why would he sign a “separate peace” with Israel—and turn himself into an eternally reviled traitor to the Palestinian cause—just to serve Obama’s agenda? No wonder he has been saying he wants to resign for the past year.

Similarly, why would even the most pro-peace Israeli government make a deal with Abbas, who cannot deliver the assent of all, or at least most, of the Palestinians? Yitzhak Rabin himself would not have signed a peace treaty with Abbas under current circumstances, because he would have understood that it could not last.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister, does not bear even a passing resemblance to the martyred Rabin, and the coalition he leads is not particularly “pro-peace.” It depends on the hard right and the settler parties for its majority in the Knesset (parliament), and it is not going to sacrifice its vision of a greater Israel to the whim of some passing American president.

Netanyahu spent his last term as prime minister in 1996-99 sabotaging the Oslo accords that promised Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. He is an adroit politician who knows how to modify his rhetoric in English to mollify Washington, but he has not changed his basic position. Why should he? Washington cannot compel Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to.

It is Israel, not the White House, that controls U.S. policy on Arab-Israeli issues, due to its huge influence in Congress. Only one U.S. president in the past generation, George Bush Sr., has successfully defied Israel. His threat of sanctions brought the Israelis to the negotiating table after the Gulf War of 1990-91—but he is convinced that that is why he lost the 1992 election.

Obama has had to re-learn that lesson over the past year. He began by backing the Palestinian demand that Israel halt new settlement building in the occupied territories before the start of peace talks. After all, the peace talks would be about granting Palestinians sovereignty over those territories, among other things. For 40 years they have watched more and more of their land disappear under Israeli settlements, and they are a bit sensitive on the subject.

Netanyahu simply said no. Then, after six months had passed, he made a tiny concession. Israel would not start any new building projects in the more rural parts of the West Bank for 10 months, although it would continue work on all current projects to expand the settlements. It would not accept any limitations on its freedom to build new Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

It was virtually meaningless: I promise not to steal from you on Thursday afternoons. But Obama had learned his lesson by then. It gave him an excuse to switch his position and demand that Abbas drop his preconditions for entering peace talks too, as if Netanyahu had dropped his. Blame the Arabs for intransigence, and move on.

The question is: what deluded adviser told Obama that there was any point in embarking on this foredoomed enterprise? The answer, unfortunately, is that it could be almost any of the recognised “experts” on the Middle East in Washington. They have been spouting nonsense for so long that it sounds like sense to them.


Gaza: Worse than a Crime

11 January 2009

Gaza: Worse than a Crime

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Israel is not going to show restraint,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Washington Post on Saturday, after the United States abstained on Friday’s UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. All last week the speculation grew that Washington was going to defy its Israeli ally for once and vote for the resolution, but literally as the delegates sat down in the Council chamber the phone call came from President Bush ordering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to abstain.

So nothing will stop Israel from hammering the Gaza Strip as hard as it likes — and the situation is unlikely to change with the inauguration of Barack Obama later this month, because he has no intention of squandering his abundant but finite political capital on a quixotic attempt to bring peace to the Middle East. He will spend it instead on goals that have some chance of being achieved, and he will be right to do so.

Yet the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip will almost certainly end within the next two weeks. International revulsion at the carnage among Palestinian civilians will play a certain role. Any big loss of life among Israeli soldiers, or the capture of even one or two soldiers, would turn Israeli public opinion against the war overnight. And the clincher is that the Israeli election is on 10 February.

The war is being fought now largely to shift the opinion polls in favour of the ruling parties before the election. However, it must be over, and somehow look like a success, before Israelis actually vote. Good luck.

The war against Hamas in Gaza looks more and more like the three-week Israeli war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006, which could hardly be called a success. It will last about as long. It will kill about as many Arabs, probably a thousand or so. And it will end with Hamas, like Hizbollah, still able to fire rockets at Israel.

This means that Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader who was already leading in the opinion polls, is almost certain to form the next Israeli government. He is the ultimate rejectionist, the man who successfully sabotaged the Oslo Accords and effectively killed the “peace process” during his last term as prime minister in 1996-99. He rejects the very idea of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu is a glib ideologue who does not understand strategy and sees no reason for Israel to seek peace with its neighbours if the price is giving the Palestinians back their pre-1967 borders. In the long run, therefore, the war is more of a disaster for the Israelis than it is for the Palestinians.

Israel currently enjoys three huge strategic advantages. It has the strongest army in the region by far, backed by the only modern economy and the only technologically competent population. It has an absolute monopoly on nuclear weapons within the region. And it has the unstinting, unquestioning support of the world’s only superpower. But none of these advantages is forever, and Israel needs to make peace with its neighbours while it still possesses them.

The existing Arab regimes are willing to make peace with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders, mainly because they fear the further radicalisation of their own populations, and perhaps even violent revolution, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to fester. But the Arabs as a whole have all the time in the world: sooner or later the wheel will turn and Israel will become vulnerable. If it has not integrated into the region by then, it will be in mortal peril.

It is pointless to make moral judgements about this war, and foolish to use the body count as an indicator of virtue or blame. About seventy Palestinians have been killed for every Israeli who has died during the current Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, but that does not mean that Israelis are in the wrong.

“The only reason there are more victims in Gaza than in Sderot is because Hamas is not good at shooting rockets,” Zalli Jaffe, an Israeli civilian living in Jerusalem, told a BBC reporter last week. “To conclude that Israel is at fault would be like saying the US was wrong in World War Two because many more Germans died than did Americans.”

That is quite true: Hamas would do exactly the same to Israelis if it could. The prospect of a seventy-to-one kill ratio makes Israel much readier to use military force than if it had to sacrifice one Israeli life for every Palestinian it killed, but the kill ratio tells us nothing about either the morality or the utility of the war.

It is the usefulness of this war, not its morality, that Israel should be questioning. Unless Israel re-occupies the Gaza Strip permanently

— which nobody wants to do, because it would mean a constant stream of Israeli military casualties — then once the army pulls back Hamas will re-emerge, stronger than ever. The Arab regimes that might make peace with Israel will be further undermined, and Israel gets Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister.

As was said after the execution of the Duc d’Enghien on Napoleon’s orders, the Gaza operation “is worse than a crime. It is a mistake.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10-13. (“It is pointless…war”)