Kerry in Jerusalem, late on June 30, photo by State Department
How do we respond to Kerry? I don’t know of anyone familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – across the board – who sees in the Kerry initiative anything other than an attempt to impose on the Palestinians a Pax Israeliana. In fact, neither Kerry nor his Israeli partners bother to deny it. For his part, Kerry’s main contribution to this latest incarnation of the long-moribund “peace process” is a vague $4 billion package of “incentives’ – part of what Amira Hass calls hush money – that bears a striking resemblance to the “economic peace” Netanyahu and Peres have been trying to peddle for years. Otherwise, Kerry is merely pressing the Palestinians to accept Israel’s preconditions for negotiations and its version of a two-state solution: no end to settlement construction, land expropriation, house demolitions (28,000 Palestinian homes demolished since 1967, and counting) or displacement; recognition of Israel as a “Jewish” state; the imposition of the Clinton Parameter’s on East Jerusalem (“what is Jewish is Israeli, what is Arab is Palestinian,” thus eliminating completely any kind of coherent urban entity that might serve as the Palestinians’ capital); Israel’s retention of at least six major settlement “blocs,” strategically placed to fragment the West Bank into disconnected and impoverished cantons while isolating what remains of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank; long-term or permanent Israeli military control over the Jordan Valley and Palestine’s borders with Egypt and Jordan – well, the list goes on: Israeli control over Palestinian airspace, over their electromagnetic sphere (communications), etc. etc. etc.
Despite the fact that a majority of Israeli Jews favor a two-state solution of some sort and hold fairly negative views of the settler enterprise, no solution that even approaches the Palestinian demand for a viable, truly sovereign, territorially contiguous state with East Jerusalem as its capital has a chance of passing through the Knesset, even if it was approved by referendum. And the will on the part of United States – Congress in particular – to force Israel to accept such a solution is missing altogether, as Kerry’s lackluster diplomacy demonstrates. Why, then, engage in the exercise at all? Well, there really is no compelling reason. The US, like Israel, has always downplayed any linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the dynamics of the wider Middle East; indeed, it portrays Israel as a valued ally in the War on Terrorism, which is the lens through which American administrations regard the region. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if Israel’s interminable oppression of the Palestinians ended, and to the degree that the US feels international isolation over its absolute support for Israel it might even help America’s standing; hence Kerry’s push (or, better, nudge) towards starting negotiations before the UN convenes in September and the Palestinians score some other symbolic victories. But Kerry’s willingness to walk away from the process if “the sides” do not cooperate (as if we’re speaking of two players of equal clout and responsibility) indicates that his government can live with the Occupation indefinitely.
Israel’s ambivalence, bordering on disinterest, also belies any genuine sense of urgency. True, Netanyahu is concerned lest a bi-national state ultimately emerges between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, but he also believes that a combination of hush money to the Palestinian elites, continued humanitarian aid by the international community and outright pacification (including self-pacification by a Palestinian Authority) is sufficient to push the Palestinian issue off his list of priorities. Interestingly, both Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, the minister in charge of negotiations, have conceded that the BDS movement poses a threat to Israel – and more than simply an economic threat. Calls for an economic boycott may have started with the settlements, says Livni, “but the [EU's] problem is with Israel, which is seen as a colonialist state. It won’t stop with the settlements but will spread to the rest of the country.” But that threat, too, diminishes in light of the eagerness of EU member states to purchase Israeli arms and high-tech products. Nor do they want to tangle with the US over the Palestinian issue.
So, yeah, why not try once more to reach “peace” with the Palestinians? Especially since the American-brokered process does not fundamentally endanger Israel’s major settlement blocs, its sovereignty over East Jerusalem or, in fact, its overall control of the West Bank. The Palestinians, Netanyahu reckons, have nowhere to go. On the ground they are exhausted, politically and physically fragmented, and cannot resist to any significant degree; politically their cause is steadily losing ground as it ceases to be an international flashpoint and disappears from view – despite periodic initiatives like Kerry’s or symbolic votes in the UN. So if Kerry’s mission succeeds, Israeli leaders calculate, we can either enter into negotiations that will lead to de facto apartheid-by-consent, the preferred outcome, or drag them out interminably. It really doesn’t matter since either scenario leaves Israel in control, our major settlements intact. And if Kerry’s efforts fail, well, we can easily blame the Palestinians for that and return peacefully to the status quo ante.
All this is not merely cynical statecraft, nor is it unique to the Israeli-Palestinian case. It goes to the very heart of international politics, to a fundamental reality we who seek a genuinely better world must grasp if we are to develop effective strategies to contend with it. That reality is that governments do not resolve conflicts (certainly not on the basis of human rights, international law and concerns over justice); they merely manage them.
I saw that clearly in a recent meeting with the officials of the Middle East Desk of a major European government. That government is one of the most critical of Israel in Europe, a stalwart of human rights and, in fact, a supporter of BDS, having divested all state pensions from Elbit Systems, a profitable Israeli military company.
Yes, they told me, we work assiduously to end the Occupation and to reach a two-state solution, the only one acceptable to us.
But what, I asked, if you yourselves became convinced that the two-state solution was gone? Would you consider another approach, a single democratic state, for example, or a bi-national one?
No, never, they replied. Look, they explained to me, it’s true we are against Israel’s occupation, but Israel itself is a friendly country to us. We cooperate on NATO matters and encourage our businesspeople to trade with Israel. We would never do anything to harm it. Therefore we cannot go anywhere beyond a two-state solution.
But if you were convinced that that solution is gone, I persisted, what would happen then? In that case, they answered, we would merely increase our humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. We could never accept any solution besides two-states that would jeopardize the integrity and security of Israel.
In other words, this resolute defender of human rights in the international community could live very well with injustice and apartheid if no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was forthcoming. This structural support for Israel carries one proviso, however: Israel must keep the lid on. Management means to essentially disregard situations that do not disrupt the international system or the core interests of its major blocs, focusing instead on extinguishing immediately disruptive flashpoints. Even wars represent more conflict management – securing resources and trade routes while keeping troublesome elements at bay – than a sometimes necessary measure in actually resolving an issue. The message of the government I visited and others to Israel is this: we will continue to extend to you our de facto support on condition that your suppression of the Palestinians remains “under the accepted radar,” that the Occupation becomes neither a flashpoint (as it did during the Intifadas and the attacks on Gaza) requiring our attention or an embarrassment to our official support of human rights. This Israel has largely succeeded in doing. The fact that the conflict continues to fester, however, especially because people around the world refuse to let it disappear, is enough to bring Kerry to the region. It is not enough, though, to generate meaningful pressures on Israel to actually end its Occupation.
If this is the case, then what are we grassroots activists to do? First, we must realize that we are in a bad marriage. Governments claim an exclusive right to run our international affairs; only they can raise armies, negotiate, sign treaties. That is why we expect them to assume leadership and solve the world’s problems. But they won’t do that, they won’t go beyond conflict management dictated by their own collective interests. Only when public pressures from below force them to act – indeed, only when public resistance forces a collapse in the status quo that compels them to genuinely address the fundamental grievances – will governments so the right thing.
The realization that we need governments, if only to nail down the solutions we ourselves espouse, provides direction to our strategies for change. We the people must be the ones to formulate the outlines of just solutions to conflicts; governments will not do that, they will merely look for the path of least resistance. And we must then forge effective strategies for forcing our solutions, or at least the principles underlying just solutions, on them. Finally, we must closely monitor how they conduct negotiations, insisting that they be transparent and that they genuinely address the issues in a just manner. We must keep them honest.
In terms of achieving a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis – something that would break down the barriers that divide us and contribute measurably to the people’s ability to address the need for change throughout our region – we as civil society still have a long way to go. The logical progression of civil society involvement, formulating an acceptable solution, effectively pursuing it and in the meantime monitoring political developments, is lacking. Through BDS and other campaigns we have in fact generated meaningful pressure on governments to justly resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but we have not formulated an alternative to the two-state solution which Israel and the US have effectively eliminated. This is the most urgent item on our agenda. Without an end-game formulated by Palestinians in conjunction with their Israeli counterparts, we cannot successfully insert ourselves into the political process, nor can we effectively monitor political developments such as Kerry’s initiative.
We must, then, at least define the principles upon which to evaluate whether political initiatives like Kerry’s are just and honest, I offer the following for consideration. I have presented these five principles elsewhere, but it might be useful to look at them in this context, if only to generate needed discussion.
1. A just peace and the process leading up to it must conform to human rights, international law and UN resolutions.
2. Regardless of whether there should or should not have been an Israel, two peoples now reside in Palestine-Israel and a just peace must be based on that bi-national reality.
3. A just peace requires an acceptance of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
4. A just peace must be economically viable, with all the country’s inhabitants enjoying equal access to the country’s resources and economic institutions.
5. A just peace must be regional in scope – by itself Israel-Palestine is too small a unit to address all the issues at stake in the conflict — and it must address the security concerns of all in the region.
If it’s true that governments merely manage conflicts and place their own interests above those of human rights and international law, it is up to us to monitor any process they initiate – to keep it honest. Formulating a set of principles through which we can evaluate whether they are genuinely addressing the issues at hand or trying to impose an unjust but manageable “solution” is crucial – not for Israel-Palestine alone, but in regard to any of the world’s innumerable conflicts.