Middle East

Little for Kerry to gain from Mideast visit

Kerry listens to Netanyahu during the annual ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem, April 8.

BEIRUT: Efforts to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations without backdoor discussions with Hamas are unlikely to yield results, analysts told The Daily Star – meaning John Kerry is likely to leave the region empty handed at the end of the week.

With the Palestinian leadership beset by infighting, and Israel and the United States preoccupied with wider regional threats, tackling the deadlock behind the 65-year conflict has been put on the diplomatic back burner.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Secretary of State will be landing in Israel Thursday, with the stated aim of resuming long-stalled negotiations. The visit will be his fourth such trip since taking over the State Department from Hillary Clinton in February, suggesting a real drive to make meaningful headway toward negotiations.

Kerry will bring with him the skeleton framework of a revised peace package designed to pull both sides back to the table. With a revamped version of the Arab League’s 2002 plan, Kerry will tell Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the proposal is in the best interest of both sides when he meets with them separately during his two-day visit.

The initial plan called for Arab League recognition of Israel and earmarking the West Bank as part of a Palestinian state, complete with a full Israeli pullout from the area. However, in an attempt to sweeten the deal for Israel, the reorganized initiative advocates altering the 1967 lines to keep some settlements in the West Bank – a major stumbling block for the Palestinians, according to diplomats.

“These modifications of the 2002 Arab initiative are clearly intended to induce Israel to take part, and do look toward Israel retaining settlement blocs and maintaining some sort of military presence in the Jordan Valley,” the Special Rapporteur for Palestine for the U.N. Human Rights Council, Richard Falk, told The Daily Star.

Such a clause would undermine the territorial sovereignty of any future Palestinian state, added a senior figure from the Palestinian Liberation Organization – the umbrella group of which the West Bank’s governing body, the Palestinian Authority, is part.

“In order to show seriousness, the least we expect [from Israel] is fulfillment of obligations according to previous agreements, which include cessation of all settlement construction. Israel is violating both international law and previous agreements by continuing to build the settlements,” Mohammad Shtayyeh told The Daily Star.

“This is a government for settlers and by settlers which doesn’t want a two-state solution”

While Israel’s settlement building poses a serious barrier to peace talks, long-term political disunity between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-run West Bank has also incapacitated Palestinian momentum for dialogue.

New unity talks announced a week ago – after a 2006 election win for Hamas in Gaza and a brief civil war afterward left the two bitter rivals – are unlikely to to bring the sides together.

“I am not optimistic [about unity talks]. These talks will go no further than all the previous ones,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute.

“There is no objective reason to expect any fundamental shift in any of their calculations,” echoed Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center and a former Palestinian negotiator.

“Fatah are sitting there trying to keep the aid flow coming in [from the U.S., which deems Hamas a terrorist organization], while Hamas see no reason to give anything up to Fatah in order to achieve reconciliation. They are less weak because they control a territory and so that gives them certain power, but they don’t have long-term strategic solutions.”

“Hamas can protect Gaza and deter Israeli aggression up to a point, but what they can’t do is change the wider strategic picture,” he said.

Israel sees Hamas as a terrorist organization bent on its destruction. This, coupled with the Islamist party’s refusal to recognize the Jewish state, has left the group isolated during consecutive negotiations.

But Sayigh said the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned group wanted to take a more proactive diplomatic role: “Hamas would love to have behind the scenes negotiations with the Americans.”

Falk agreed, adding: “It would be a constructive step for the U.S. to bring Hamas into any meaningful peace process.”

But with the Arab Spring realigning the political landscape of the Middle East and tilting the balance of power in favor of Islamist political parties, Hamas has been put in a strategically stronger position.

Uprisings in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt have put Islamists at the center of political power and forced the U.S. to adapt to their presence. Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, a close ally of the Brotherhood, played a pivotal role in brokering the cease-fire following the Israel-Gaza war last November – confirming Cairo’s increased engagement with affairs across its northeast border.

“Hamas’ profile on the international stage has undoubtedly been boosted by the rise of Islamist movements that have come to power during the Arab awakening,” Jordan Perry, senior MENA analyst at Maplecroft risk firm, told The Daily Star.

“The Hamas government in Gaza has gained greater credence through previous visits by senior foreign figures, including Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and Turkish regional minister Ahmet Davutoglu in October and November 2012.”

Turkish premier Tayyip Recep Erdogan said he might follow Davutoglu’s lead and visit the enclave this summer, a move likely to bolster Hamas’ creditability as an acceptable force for Western governments to engage with.

In the short term, however, behind-the-scenes talks with Hamas remain implausible for Kerry, Sayigh said.

“Unless there is something really serious the U.S. wants to achieve, why would they bother burning themselves politically [with Israel] in order to try and bring Hamas in?” he asked.

Despite deadlock over settlements and ambiguity over Hamas’ role, officials from both sides have publically hailed Kerry’s visit. Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni described resuming negotiations as “first and foremost an Israeli interest,” and Stayyeh told The Daily Star, “we fully trust Secretary Kerry.”

But Sayigh said Washington’s focus on the conflict did not indicate the launch of a major new push for peace, but rather was aimed at tackling broader regional strategic concerns.

The U.S., he said, was merely paying lip service to the idea of talks, hoping to placate Israeli fears and present a united front in the face of Iran’s possible nuclear program.

In his visit to the area with Kerry in February, “Obama was trying to reassure the Israelis by saying: ‘We are with you unconditionally, so trust us on Iran and don’t rush into anything,’” Sayigh said.

“He had absolutely no other reason to go at that time to give that message, especially when there wasn’t much more to work with on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Israel has accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear capabilities, something the Islamic Republic denies, and has threatened to launch pre-emptive strike on sites in the country if Tehran passes Netanyahu’s ‘red line’ on uranium enrichment. Obama is wary of a unilateral strike, fearing that an attack could spark a wider regional conflict.

“The Israel-Palestine issue has been sidelined for 13 years. We have not seen anything [that] would suggest there is anything meaningful on the table, the main issues are not being tackled, and Kerry’s focus is evidently elsewhere, so why should be waiting on an outcome this week?” Sayigh said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2013, on page 9.

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