In their foreign-policy activities, many U.S. politicians face the need to resolve an almost age-old issue – the settlement of the Middle East problem. Sometimes it seemed that their efforts would bring a long-awaited result, but the prospects for peace in the Middle East would then suddenly vanish, giving way to another cycle of violence and escalation of tensions.
According to some analysts, the year of 2014 can be a year of radical changes and important transformations in the Middle East. It should be noted that experts are predicting quite opposite scenarios of further developments, and their opinions are contradictory, so we can expect anything to happen. Today, the task of Middle East analysts is additionally complicated by a number of new factors that must be taken into account, which makes the problems of the Middle East conflict multi-level and complex.
Since it is understood and noted by many, experts often talk metaphorically about the Middle East. Speaking about the Middle East settlement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry compares it to a “puzzle where it is important to fit together all the pieces into a coherent whole”. The challenge U.S. Secretary of State is facing now is hard and ambiguous; new and equally difficult challenges add to the old, “classical” problems of the Middle East settlement.
The events happening in the Middle East today – from the “reboot” in US-Iranian relations and the compromise on the Syrian issue, within the framework of the Geneva-II Peace Conference and ending with the peace plan proposed by John Kerry – are new and extraordinary. Peace in the Middle East has once again become a priority of the U.S. Administration.
It is worth noting that Barack Obama announced the basic principles of the Middle East policy of the new administration in June 2009, when speaking at Cairo University. His official speech was an appeal for the cooperation and interreligious “alliance” with the Muslims around the world. American president also described his vision of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The only possible solution is the desire of the two states to live in peace and within secure borders. This reflects the interests of Israel, the Palestinians, America and the whole world. That is why I am going to pursue that goal patiently – and achieve it. The parties have a number of obligations within the “road map” and they must fulfill them. It is time for them and for us to bear the responsibility provided for in this document, for the sake of peace”.
The Middle East settlement process was truly unfrozen only in July 2013, after a long three-year break. In September 2013, Barack Obama met with President of the Palestinian Authority M. Abbas at a meeting of the UN General Assembly, which was another milestone in the peace process. The initialization of an integrated approach to the Middle East problems, characterizing Barack Obama’s second term, not only suggests that the American president remembered his “Cairo promises”, but also suggested that the United States entered into the “big” game in the Middle East. While nothing in Barack Obama’s actions had suggested that he was a strategist and a strong foreign policy player, by June 2013 (American president’s actions were more like an attempt to get rid of the heavy burden of George W. Bush’s legacy left in Iraq and Afghanistan), now there were serious indicators. These were the Russian-American agreement on the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria, the U.S. rapprochement with Iran, the preparation of the negotiating framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggested that the American administration might be testing a new, large Middle East course. Perhaps, the solution of the whole complex of problems in the Middle East will give the U.S. Administration an opportunity to focus on the Pacific Region, which was announced as an area of strategic reorientation in 2011.
Of course, the level of skepticism about the success of such “strategic ideas” is extremely high among experts. The reason for this is a number of factors and components of this process. On the one hand, a high level of the US-Russian cooperation on the key Middle East issues is obvious. However, this cooperation is conducted in difficult conditions of the US-Russian bilateral relations, and now is directly affected by the general background of the deterioration, and tensions, in Russia’s relations with Western countries, in connection with the crisis in Ukraine. On the other hand, the problems with Syria, Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are not the only problems in the “chain” of the Middle East problems. The region is still unstable because of the events of the “Arab Spring”. “American reboot” of the transformations in the Middle East does not mean that the processes, unfrozen by the “Arab Spring” at the end of 2010, will directly affect the success of American policy. Finally, there are a number of “hidden” potentially dangerous problems and contradictions that can re-emerge at any time and make adjustments to U.S. plans. These include: the complex historical and religious differences between Sunnis and Shiites; regional competition of countries as part of the historical, imperial heritage; evolution of the most important economic component of the Middle East – hydrocarbon factor, and others. Here, the difficulty is that politicians alone cannot cope with these issues: every problem requires a balanced, long-term, expert study and careful solutions.
The paradox of the current situation is that some professionals consider the entire range of existing problems as an insurmountable obstacle to a constructive solution of the problem, while others, on the contrary, consider it as a kind of the moment of truth – when secondary issues move to second place, and there is a “second wind” – giving a powerful impetus to quickly overcome the crisis. Apparently, Obama’s administration and his Middle East team of the second term, headed by Secretary of State John Kerry, are among optimistic experts.
The appointment of John Kerry to the position of Secretary of State in February 2013 and his proactive position on the Middle East issues, which has fully showed itself only now, gives reason to draw an analogy with the actions of previous administrations, including with the foreign policy of the tandem George H.W. Bush – Baker, with the “shuttle diplomacy” of H. Kissinger, and initiatives of Jimmy Carter’s times. Of course, the “form” of presentation by the U.S. side has not changed much, perhaps, it should not change, because it has been tested by time and circumstances over and over. Perhaps, the “new shuttle diplomacy” of John Kerry (U.S. Secretary of State made about 10 trips to the Middle East from July 2013 to January 2014, trying to make progress between Israel and the Palestinian side) is the only sure way to make the sides to sit down to the negotiating table, and judging by the comments in the media, this method is quite effective. “It seems that there is a hope for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result of five months of diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, the atmosphere of skepticism and disbelief gave way to a serious, constructive mood, at least on the part of Israel”.
It should be noted that U.S. Secretary of State initially set himself and his team the goal to achieve signing of an agreement on the final status between Israel and the Palestinians by April 2014, when the nine-month period expires, which was given to the parties in July 2013, to conduct talks. This unrealistic proposal by J. Kerry, however, gave way to a soberer intention soon: to sign a framework agreement between the parties that would be the basis for the conclusion of a final document in the future. In the absence of any progress between Israel and the Palestinians, the U.S. side developed its draft of the framework document, where it highlighted the main issues of the peace settlement. This decision was taken to compel the parties to start a constructive dialogue and to begin the development of hard decisions. “The parties have conducted negotiations over the past few weeks, but this was not a real negotiation process, where the parties are looking for compromises and making mutual concessions. It was rather an exchange of views on existing issues. The Americans realized that there would be no result if they continued to negotiate in such a format. However, nobody wants to end the discussions with nothing. The framework agreement opens up the possibility of bilateral talks on the final status,” M. Herzog, one of the members of Israeli delegation at the negotiations, commented on the situation. According to John Kerry, “the framework agreement will put the parties in a situation where the choice of positions is deliberately narrow, and solutions are difficult, but obvious, which is quite understandable”. The Palestinian side is more restrained in its comments, and associates the beginning of the negotiations with the implementation of Palestinian demands. The head of the Palestinian negotiating team, S. Erekat said that “it is necessary to adhere to the basic principles of the peace process, such as the creation of two states based on the borders of 1967; Israeli’s complete withdrawal from the occupied territories, recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state and releasing of all Palestinian prisoners”.
As for the content of the American peace initiative proposed by John Kerry, here, of course, there are new elements and factors that emerged as a result of events that transformed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Among them, we should distinguish a particularly keen controversy over the issue of Israeli settlements; providing guarantees of the security of Israel’s borders. As was mentioned above, the Palestinians demand that Israel should adhere to the basic UN Security Council resolutions, and insist on the restoration of the borders of 1967. Secretary of State John Kerry assured the Palestinians that the U.S. was pursuing a similar position, and suggested mutually agreed exchanges of territories in disputed cases, which would allow the majority of settlers on the West Bank to remain within the borders of Israel. Since John Kerry understands how much a “stickler” the issue of Israeli settlements is, he prefers not to focus too much attention on it for the present. According to John Kerry’s idea, the provision of security of Israel’s borders, including through a temporary deployment of foreign forces in the Palestinian territories (a term of up to 10 years, and the possibility of the presence of Israeli or U.S. military are being considered) and the mutual exchange of territories that can partially solve the problem of Israeli settlements, is the concession the Palestinians can agree to in exchange for B. Netanyahu’s consent to adhere to the formula of returning to the borders of 1967 and “giving” Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
The intra-Palestinian factor of the Hamas also complicates the negotiations, as the negotiation process involves making decisions that are acceptable to all the Palestinians, and the existence of the Gaza Strip, that is controlled by the central Palestinian Authority, governed by the Hamas, and which does not consider the possibility of negotiating with Israel, minimizes the “specific weight” of the decisions reached through negotiations, at least in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli side can make quite new demands to the Palestinians at the negotiations: to recognize Israel officially as a Jewish state (for the first time this demand was announced by Prime Minister E. Olmert in 2007). It is worth noting that in 2009 President Barack Obama repeated it in Cairo, when he talked about America’s vision of peace in the Middle East. Given that the Palestinians officially recognized the existence of Israel in the framework of Oslo-I Agreement in 1993, the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a risky step even with the support from the United States. In addition to the traditional problem of Palestinian refugees, this demand raises an issue of the fate of 1.6 million Palestinians who are citizens of the State of Israel.
The problem of the peace agreement is further complicated by the factor of instability in the functioning of the Israeli government. Some experts even call Israel a “quasi-anarchy”, due to a number of destabilizing domestic factors, such as functional weakness of the prime minister, inefficiency in decision-making by the Israeli Cabinet, inter-party struggles within the coalition governments, and information leaks.
From the point of view of diplomatic tactics, we can say that efforts to unblock the negotiations undertaken by U.S. Secretary of State are reminiscent of actions of the previous administrations, including Clinton’s peacemaking efforts before the summit at Camp David in July 2000. Today, John Kerry is inviting the parties to achieve the basic agreement with the main provisions of his plan at first, which may allow concluding a framework agreement in April 2014, and discussing complicated details of the disputed issues in the course of preparations for the final peace agreement, which could be postponed to a later date. However, it should be noted that so far, even despite the pressure from the United States and some Western countries, M. Abbas finds the framework agreement proposed by the Americans unacceptable to the Palestinians, because it does not take into account the interests of the Palestinians. Moreover, the attempts of the American side to “postpone” the terms of signing of a framework agreement for the period after April 29, due to the lack of any significant progress in the negotiations, have no support among the Palestinians. “Extending the negotiations after April 29, even for one hour, will have no results, and is a waste of time,” the head of the Palestinian delegation, S. Erekat, told journalists in late February this year. We should also pay attention to the recent serious statement made by Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting with Z. Gal, the leader of the Israeli organization Meretz – that “if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry does not take into account the positions of the Palestinians on the main issues of the framework agreement, the Palestinians will leave the negotiations and will apply to international agencies with a request for unilateral recognition of the Palestinian state.” M. Abbas stressed the same position at a personal meeting of the head of the Palestinian Authority with President Barack Obama held in Washington on March 17.
However, increasing the level of contacts in the negotiation process in the Middle East, which was declared as the initiative of U.S. Secretary of State in the summer of 2013, suggests that apparently John Kerry cannot cope with this problem himself. John Kerry’s sincere desire to achieve peace in the Middle East, taking direct and constant part in addressing problems and even with the availability of a team of experienced professionals, is not enough. The Middle East conflict was transformed from a local conflict, into an important component of deep reforms in the region. As an important and complex area of the world, the Middle East does not accept any “simple solutions”, does not admit a “superficial” study, and does not take seriously loud statements that are not backed by concrete actions. The experience of previous administrations showed the fatality of time frames and persistence of a third force for a fragile negotiation process, when the parties to the conflict are neither interested or willing.
It is worth noting that a number of factors, such as the general instability in the region, counteractions to the peace initiative by some political forces both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, can catalyze the negotiations in a way, creating a generally negative background for a positive urge to the peace process in the Middle East. First of all, since B. Netanyahu and M. Abbas are well aware how much is at stake: on the one hand, the domestic policy and public discontent with the U.S. attempt to unfreeze the negotiation process, on the other hand, the possibility of another cycle of violence – a “third intifada”. Both leaders are in a difficult situation now: the risk of entering the negotiations may turn into a collapse of the political career for both B. Netanyahu and M. Abbas. The desperate attempts of John Kerry to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and to drive the things from the deadlock, have been of no avail. Chances to conclude a framework agreement by April 29 are not big. Strange as it may seem, despite John Kerry’s desire to “go down in history” and to influence the developments, now the situation does not depend on the desires of the Secretary of State, but on whether the positions of Netanyahu and Abbas coincide: whether the two politicians agree to risk their political careers, perhaps even their lives, and start another peace process under the auspices of the U.S.?
Victoria Fradkova, PhD in History, Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia at MGIMO-University of the MFA of Russia, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.