By Abdur Rahman Chowdhury
April 04, 2014
Now the possibility of breaking the peace talks looms large. Palestinians are weighing options ranging from urging international boycotts against Israel to seeking recognition at the UN. They might approach the International Criminal Court to try the Israeli military for war crimes
President Obama raised passions during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. The US believed he would revitalise the economy, bring ongoing wars to a halt, advance diplomacy over bellicosity in settling international disputes and restore human rights. The president charmed the Arabs when he said in Cairo in June 2009, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. They are based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they have endured the pain of dislocation. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own...The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” In Europe, the president pledged the US would work in concert with European allies and would listen to them. This created an impression that US hegemony would be replaced by an ‘era of discourse’.
Though troops were brought home from Iraq, no safeguards were put in place prior to withdrawal. Consequently, mayhem still continues. No peace initiative was formulated for the Israel-Palestinian conflict — George Mitchell remained a lame duck peace envoy with no agenda to pursue. The Arab Spring began in mid-2012 and swept away dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The US failed to take a position at the right time. It was hesitant about which side to embrace. The dictators were their long time friends while there was an emerging force on the streets asking for a pluralistic society. When the turn came for Syria, the US administration again faltered. Supporting the Assad regime was not an option but the opposition was fragmented and even embraced extremists. Lack of a timely decision brought death to over 100,000 people and displacement to a million. Iran was suspected to have been in pursuit of nuclear capability. Tehran repeatedly claimed it was pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful development purposes but the US preferred sanctions over dialogue and thus stalemate persisted. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited more countries than any of her predecessors but what were her achievements? Nothing significant. Senator Rand Paul remarked, after Hillary Clinton admitted she ignored the e-mail from Ambassador Steve, that if he were the president, she would have been relieved on that very day. That marked the unceremonious end of Hillary Clinton’s term in the State Department.
John Kerry became the secretary of state by default after Susan Rice, US representative at the UN, withdrew at the vehement opposition from heavyweight Republican senators. Soon after assuming the job, Kerry observed that “two state solutions” may no longer be an option in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last summer he persuaded Palestinians and Israelis to return to the negotiating table. Representatives of both parties met briefly in Washington and Kerry set a timeframe: within next six months an agreement would be concluded. A Palestinian-American gentleman told me that Kerry would like to accomplish in six months what the international community could not achieve in 60 years. To reach the goal he even advised the Palestinian leadership not to overreact on the settlement programme without realising that the crux of the conflict centres around the continued expansion of settlements on Arab land.
Now the possibility of breaking the peace talks looms large. Palestinians are weighing options ranging from urging international boycotts against Israel to seeking recognition at the UN. They might approach the International Criminal Court to try the Israeli military for war crimes in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Palestinians would seek membership of UN agencies, a move that would bring them closer to future statehood. A section of Palestinians believe there should be one state, encompassing the West Bank and Israel, in which Palestinians, together with Arab Israelis, comprise 40 percent of the total population. Another option is to call for a popular uprising — both would unfold serious challenges to Israel.
Mohamed Morsi, the elected president of Egypt, was overthrown by the military 18 months ago. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB) colleagues have been undergoing trials on varying charges including treason. An Egyptian court last week handed death sentences to 529 MB members for the alleged murder of one policeman. Since July 2013, more than 2,500 people were killed and 16,000 arrested. General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is now the official candidate for the job of the president, and the election has been scheduled for May 27. The outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion. Kerry has publicly claimed that the military coup against Morsi was aimed at “restoring democracy”. He assured that “in very short order, we will be able to move forward in certifying that Egypt is eligible for full resumption of US aid”. Kerry echoed Obama’s position that promoting democracy and free trade in the Middle East was no longer a core interest of US foreign policy. Democracy has never been the cornerstone of US foreign policy. In fact, during the past 65 years, totalitarian regimes in Asia, the Middle East and Africa were major allies and recipients of US bounty.
During a tour in the Middle East in November, Kerry expressed optimism over how the “roadmap to democracy is being worked out to the best of our perceptions”. He said a peace conference would soon replace the Assad regime in Syria; Russia and Iran would ensure that Assad would live up to its obligation. However, Syrian peace talks imploded before they began in January in Geneva. The talks broke down without reaching an agreement on anything. The Assad regime appears more confident and more stable now than it was a few months ago. Kerry’s optimism turned out grossly misplaced.
The Crimean annexation by Russia posed another challenge to Kerry. He reminded the Russian leaders that the annexation of Crimea has been repugnant to international law and a violation of the UN charter. Kerry forgot that Soviet tanks entered Prague in 1968 to suppress an anti-communist movement in Czechoslovakia. Conversely, the CIA orchestrated a coup against Chilean President Allende in 1973 and got him assassinated. Crimean annexation is a corollary of the superpowers’ repeated wanton disregard of international laws. Kerry flew to Kiev and then to Brussels to mobilise international sanctions against Russia. France and the UK appeared less exuberant due to the billions of dollars arms trade they have with Russia. Germany gets one third of its gas supply from Russia. Participating in the sanctions would risk disrupting its energy supply. The US Congress has now passed ‘sanctions’ against Russia. This will strain Washington-Moscow relations.
An interim agreement was reached in November among the EU, US and Iran. Iranian President Rouhani expressed optimism that within 12 months, a comprehensive agreement would be possible. Israel has opposed the interim agreement and has preferred a military solution over diplomatic discourse. The Israeli prime minister visited Washington last month and cautioned the US leadership against trusting Tehran too much. He was advocating additional tougher sanctions — a move that would excoriate the interim agreement and crack open divisions in the international community.
Secretary of State John Kerry loves to rush to the places of occurrence rather than guiding and formulating strategy. He spends more time abroad. The US administration needs a seasoned diplomat, not a frequent flyer, who would, among other things, not conflate military rule (in Egypt) as a prelude to democracy.