The U.S. secretary of state is currently traveling in the Middle East, and the president will be travelling there next month. But this time, neither John Kerry nor Barack Obama will be focusing primarily on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as secretaries of state and presidents have done so often in the past.
This time, Obama and Kerry will be dealing mainly with the more pressing issues of an ongoing and bloody civil war in Syria and a suspected nuclear weapons program in Iran. That has left some analysts, as well as officials in the region, grousing that Washington may have lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse after almost 40 years of trying without success to broker a peace accord between the two sides.
Others, however, argue the U.S. is as committed as ever to Israeli-Palestinian peace and believe Secretary of State Kerry will use the trip to lay the foundations for renewed peace talks. Among them is Ziad J. Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine based in Washington, DC.
“Both the president and the secretary of state are very aware of the complexity of the present situation, the degree of tension that presently exists between the Palestinians and the Israelis and the huge fragmentation - not just within Palestine and Israel internally, but also across the Arab landscape,” Asali said. “So they know they are walking into a situation that would not lend itself to immediate solutions.
“I think both of them are expressing, essentially, the most important message to be delivered, which is that Palestine and Israel are high on the president’s agenda, and the administration is committed to dealing with this issue,” he said.
Asali says he is convinced John Kerry can do the job.
“The Secretary of State is a fresh new figure, new but not old. He is someone who has been involved with foreign policy issues for the last three decades…and he is knowledgeable about the games and the players in the Middle East,” Asali said. “He clearly is the point man on this effort. The president has the whole world to contend with, as well as priorities within the U.S., so this is going to be an issue that will belong to the secretary of state.”
Impediments to peace
Maybe so, but Kerry faces some tough obstacles.
“There is no clear leader in Israel now, and the Palestinian leadership is fragmented,” Asali said. “Hamas is outside the circle of influence of the Palestinian Authority altogether. So these are not the best possible partners with whom to engage in serious negotiation.”
The most difficult challenge may be the one rarely discussed - what Alon Ben-Meir, professor of international relations and Middle East Studies at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, calls “psychological resistance.” By that he means the historic, political and religious narratives that have made it very difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to relate to one another. Understanding their respective “mindsets,” says Ben-Meir, is key to breaking through the impasse.
“The Jewish experience in the diaspora throughout the centuries, even the millennium, specifically in Europe, where we had the persecution, anti-Semitism and the expulsion, culminating with the Holocaust, has created such an image in the mind of the Jews and removed any semblance of trust between them and the rest of the international community,” Ben-Meir said. “What you see in Israel is the utter and complete distrust of the Palestinians because Jews say that what happened 70 years ago can happen again.”
Palestinians also carry scars based on the traumas of their own past.
“They fear what happened to them in 1948 with what they call al-Nakba - the “catastrophe.” That was the year the state of Israel was established and fought a war with its Arab neighbors. In the process, tens of thousands of Palestinians found themselves homeless.
And that, says Ben-Meir, is embedded in the Palestinian psyche and it cannot be mitigated by simple conversation.
“From their perspective, they have also suffered tremendously because of the Israeli incursions into their territory,” Ben-Meir said.
Religious convictions further complicate the issue. A case in point is Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their holy city and capital.
“The Israelis believe that Jerusalem ought to remain the eternal united city of the Jewish people, of the state of Israel, and that it cannot be divided,” Ben-Meir said.
“At the same time, the Palestinian connection to Jerusalem is also based on religious conviction that the Prophet Mohamed, on his way to heaven, passed through Jerusalem, and this is where the Dome of the Rock was subsequently built.”
Ben-Meir says these narratives have been reinforced for decades by public and religious leaders, in the media and in schools, generation after generation until they have become so ingrained that Israelis and Palestinians have naturally become resistant to any kind of change. He says a resulting cult of “victimhood” on both sides prevents them from being able to understand or feel compassion for one another.
Breaking new ground
?But Ben-Meir says the impasse is not insurmountable. “First of all, I think President Obama himself needs to commit himself to the process, and we have doubts as to whether President Obama will be willing or able to do so.”
Second, Ben-Meir says the U.S. must actually go to the region with a specific framework for peace based on prior agreements. Third, the Washington should be ready to use pressure and coercive measures against both sides and remind Israel that peace is central to Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state.
Ori Nir is spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C. that says peace is necessary for all parties, including the U.S.
“I think that the first assertion that the United States has to make is that the U.S. has clear national security interests in Israeli-Palestinian peace -- i.e., ‘This is something that we, America, want, and you guys owe it to us’” Nir says.
He adds that the Washington also must work to establish an atmosphere of trust.
“President Obama started that four years ago, when he went to Cairo and spoke directly with the Arab public, but failed to deliver a similar message to the Israelis,” Nir says.
“The fact of the matter is that if you want to have a credible peace process going, if an Israeli prime minister wants to come to his public and say, ‘I need your support when I go into this,’ you need Israeli public support.”
Nir is optimistic that Israel can be talked into major concessions. “Israelis turn on a dime, and we’ve seen it before.”
If the Israeli prime minister stands before the public and says, “The time has come to do it,” Nir says, “The people will follow.”