Obama and Kerry Should Listen Hard

BEIRUT - It was inevitable that the announcement of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East in mid-March would trigger expectations of new proposals for re-starting Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. This visit, coupled with John Kerry’s appointment as secretary of state and the start of Obama’s second term, heightens speculation about what, if anything, the United States may do to prod the parties towards fresh negotiations.
I agree with traditional thinking that the start of a president’s second term is the best time for any daring initiatives, given that he could take risks without fear of the ensuing domestic political damage. I also believe that a really bold American initiative could move things in the right direction. Yet I see no signs anywhere that a fresh American diplomatic initiative on Arab-Israeli issues is planned or could succeed, given the current condition and positions of the key players.
So what are we to do, and why is John Kerry making noises about moving the peace process forward? He said last week after talks with the Jordanian foreign minister in Washington, D.C. that, "I believe that there are possibilities." He also noted, "I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices. It would be a huge mistake, almost an arrogant step, to suddenly be announcing this and that without listening first. Everybody understands that the United States of America is an indispensable entity with respect to that process. I understand that. The president understands that, and the president is not prepared at this point in time to do more than to listen to the parties."
Well, the good news is that Kerry seems both realistic and humble in his insistence on hearing from the parties before formulating any new American moves. This is refreshing, and a critical step for any would-be mediator. The bad news, however, is that on both counts of his statement he is likely only to meet frustration and misery. What he will hear from the parties may cause him to decide that the gap between them is too wide to close, making him shift his attention to other, easier, diplomatic challenges. And if he is thinking about formulating new American moves that essentially repeat the old approach of seeking confidence-building small steps by the current Palestinian and Israeli leaderships, he would do better not to waste his time on such fantasies.
The three elements that discourage any progress are all significant, but also all three are surmountable if political leaders truly summon the courage to bring bold new approaches to the table.
The first problem is that Israel’s political leadership -- regardless of what kind of coalition government takes office in the month ahead -- is very far from the international consensus on its need to comply with the legal requirements of a peace accord, namely full withdrawal from occupied lands (with agreed swaps), sharing Jerusalem, and negotiating an equitable resolution of Palestinian refugeehood. The Israeli elections last month clarified the Israeli public’s pervasive inattention to peace-making, let alone its willingness to make any concessions towards law-abiding policies.
The second problem is that the Palestinians are deeply divided between Hamas and Fateh, and the current leadership team under President Mahmoud Abbas has very little credibility with its own public or with Israel.
The third problem is that the United States, despite its being indispensible to this diplomatic process, has also proved over the past 20 years of trying, that it is also either technically incompetent or politically incapable of being credibly impartial.
A fourth and most important obstacle to signing a comprehensive, equitable and lasting peace agreement, however, is that none of the three parties is yet prepared to get to the heart of the dispute and force agreement on the core issues: The Israelis need to be accepted as a legitimate country in and of this region, that can live in full peace and with normal relations with its neighbors; the Palestinians need to get genuine statehood in the occupied territories of 1967, and Israeli compliance with the legal and political requirements of ending Palestinian refugeehood from both 1947-48 and 1967. Only mutual recognitions and concessions will bring these core gains and rights to both sides.
If Obama and Kerry indeed do listen carefully to the parties, and push them to lay out their respective bottom line essentials for a permanent peace, this is what they will hear. Their challenge, should they wish to accept it, is to forge a diplomatic process that gets to this heart of the conflict that really matters to both sides, rather than repeating the legacy of sustained failure that has always crafted American diplomacy according to the red lines of Israeli Likud extremists in Israel -- and in Washington, D.C. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global