As tensions in the Israeli- occupied West Bank and Gaza ratchet up, John Kerry, the 168th US Secretary Of State, has watered his optimistic “final agreement” for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict down to an interim “framework agreement” and even that is looking increasingly problematic as both Israeli and Palestinian governments continue to attack Kerry.
When this latest round of peace talks began in July, 2013, the White House laid out a nine-month period for establishing a final agreement to bring an end to one of the longest and most retracted conflicts in the region. The agreement was meant to be reached at the end of April following the fourth stage of a Palestinian prisoner release agreement due at the end of March.
However, the American diplomat has warned that the release of the prisoners may be dependent on the Palestinians signing a framework agreement while the Palestinians have warned that if the release does not go ahead that will end negotiations.
Kerry is thought to believe that if his efforts do not bear fruit by then the negotiations will break down, either due to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s refusal to release Arab prisoners who are Israeli citizens or due to an anticipated surge of construction in the settlements in response to the prisoner release. This could cause the Palestinians to abandon the talks and renew their unilateral actions through the United Nations.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams have dug their heels in over a number of issues that they both claim are red lines that they are unwilling to cross. While the two teams disagree on almost every issue, there is one issue over which they are united and that is that they believe Kerry is biased in favour of the other side and his attempts at reconciliation will lead to nothing and that the peace talks are basically a waste of time.
Several of the red lines include Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a condition that Israel never demanded of Jordan and Egypt when it signed peace agreements with those two countries.
Israel is already a de facto Jewish state with legislation that favours Jewish citizens over other minorities, particularly Israeli-Arabs. The Palestinians argue that recognising Israel as such would infringe on Israel’s Arab minority and the refugees’ right of return.
Israel’s continued settlement building is also a major source of anger and frustration for the Palestinians while Israel’s demand that it continue a military presence in the Jordan Valley indefinitely is something the Palestinians are unwilling to consider other than for a limited period of up to five years.
Meanwhile, on the ground tensions continue to rise with Israeli troops shooting 27 Palestinians dead, most of leading to arguments and personal attacks between the them unarmed, in the West Bank alone during 2013 and Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians and their property spiking. Kerry’s patience has been sorely tested, and patient he has been. He has made dozens of trips to the region this year alone. Many of those trips were extended several days beyond their deadline as he travelled back and forth between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman conveying the latest demands and comments by members of the two negotiating teams.
While everybody else commented on the lack of progress during the talks, with mutual recrimination leading to arguments and personal attacks between the negotiating team members, kerry would release bright, upbeat soundbites to the media about matters progressing smoothly and positively and the real possibility of an agreement.
However, the negativity surrounding the talks reached a nadir when members of The Israeli government began attacking Kerry on a personal level. These attacks increased after he warned Israel that the status Quo could not continue and that the Jewish state was in danger of being isolated by an increasingly robust Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against the country along the lines of that which forced the end of apartheid in South Africa.
His comments led to members of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, accusing Kerry of threatening Israel economically and even supporting sanctions. The steady trickle of insults and invective evolved into a tempestuous torrent.
Following Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon describing Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic”, Bayit Yehudi MP Motti Yogev – from the ruling coalition – described Kerry as an anti-Semite. Other Knesset members accused the secretary of state of “trying to hold a gun to our heads”.
Israeli Economy Minister and Habayit Hayehudi party leader Naftali Bennett upped the ante. “Friends, let us be clear to all of the advice givers: Never has a nation abandoned their land because of economic threats. We are no different,” Bennett said in a statement.
“Only security will bring economic stability, not a terrorist state next to Ben-Gurion Airport. We expect our friends around the world to stand beside us, against anti-Semitic boycott efforts targeting Israel, and not for them to be their amplifier.”
Meanwhile, a group of rabbis warned Kerry to cease his pursuit of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians or face divine retribution in a letter.
The group, calling itself “The Committee to Save the Land and People of Israel,” wrote that Kerry’s “incessant efforts to expropriate integral parts of our Holy Land and hand them over to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s terrorist gang, amount to a declaration of war against the Creator and Ruler of the universe!”
Kerry eventually responded saying he would not be intimidated by Israeli critics as the White House issued a stern warning to the Israeli government not to distort the statements made by the secretary of state.
Israeli columnist Carlo Strenger warned Israeli right- wingers against the misuse of the anti-Semitism card and leaped to Kerry’s defence.
“Kerry is afraid that the occupation policy will drive Israel into a depth of isolation never known before, including the economic boycott that is now gradually beginning to be implemented by European institutions − and yes, he warns Israel of the consequences of perpetuating the occupation.
“I can attest to the same caring for Israel by many European politicians and diplomats who speak to me under condition of anonymity. Many of them have been friends of Israel for decades, and are both shocked and worried by the country’s growing lack of diplomatic finesse and its blatant disregard for its closest allies and friends.”