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Can the peace process benefit from a ‘messianic, obsessive’ Kerry?

Instead of obsessive and messianic, Kerry might be seen as a very determined statesman with a vision and a mission to be accomplished.

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Private conversations between journalists and political leaders can spark controversy even if they are published years after they took place. However, revealing the content to the media, in the midst of delicate and complex peace negotiations, can have explosive political repercussions.

This is exactly what happened when one of Israel’s leading newspapers quoted the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon criticising United State Secretary of State John Kerry of being motivated by “… misplaced obsession and messianic fervour.”

Even by the minister’s standards, this was blunt and uncalled for. Kerry might not have expected a smooth ride in his efforts to bring peace in the Middle East, yet his tireless efforts hardly deserved to be on the receiving end of such boorish comments from the retired General. Ya’alon is part of the Israeli negotiation team, and thus one cannot help but wonder if his opinions are reflective of others in the Israeli cabinet and of Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular.

Ya’alon dismissively remarked that it would be best if the American Secretary of State would win the Noble Prize and “leave us alone.” This remark is reflective of his disapproval of the security plan put forward by the U.S., which, in his opinion, provides neither peace nor security for the state of Israel.

If this is the perspective of the Israeli leadership regarding the negotiations with the Palestinians, it seems that Kerry is wasting his time and energy, and that the April deadline will yield nothing. Ya'alon’s outburst represents a dominant perception shared by the cabinet in Jerusalem, that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to support such a complex process, and that no peace agreement or security arrangements can replace Israel’s military presence in certain strategic positions in the West Bank. This is something which of course the Palestinians reject outright.

Israel's disingenuous intentions

It is symbolic that Ya’alon’s comments were made on the week that Israel's former prime minister Ariel Sharon was buried. Sharon and his predecessor Ehud Barak were both former generals engrained in Israeli public opinion who faced the myth of a lack of partner on the Palestinian side.

Worse, they approached the notion of a peace agreement as just a piece of paper. As former military men, the notion of peace as part of a comprehensive process of truth, reconciliation and justice to compliment security arrangements has been, and still is, an entirely alien concept for them. Israel as a sovereign state is not expected to forfeit her right and capabilities to defend herself in any future peace agreement.

Nevertheless, John Kerry's endeavours put heavy emphasis on reaching an agreement which maintains Israeli military superiority but at the same time changes the discourse between Israelis and Palestinians from one of deep enmity to one of peace and co-existence. In the process, Kerry will undoubtedly upset the Palestinian leadership, who is under enormous pressure to accept conditions which compromise the sovereignty of their future state.

At the same time he also upsets the Israelis, who are reluctant to make concessions which they perceive as compromising their security. Many Israelis are reluctant to understand that very few among the Palestinians, or the Arab world as a whole, see the United States or even John Kerry as an honest broker.

From their perspective, he is seen as primarily serving Israeli interests. Encountering hostility from the Israeli side makes his task almost impossible.

Israel's increasing isolation

The altercation with the U.S. administration takes place at a time when Israel is increasingly isolated in world affairs. Even her close friends in Europe and the United States are exasperated with her stance on concluding a peace agreement with the Palestinians and especially her settlement policies.

The only silver lining to this diplomatic incident is that it might be an eye opener for Kerry in realising that the forces working against him are much stronger that he had expected.

Yossi Mekelberg

There is an increasing trend, especially in Europe, calling for divestment and boycotts to be imposed on Israel. In recent weeks in diplomatic tit for tat Israeli ambassadors in Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain were summoned to their respective foreign ministries to hear protestation against Israel's latest announcement to expand settlements. Israeli Foreign Minister Joe Lieberman called in these countries’ ambassadors and accused them of taking a one sided approach to the conflict.

Already last July the EU issued guidelines instructing that no Israeli entity would get funding from the EU if it has direct links with the occupied territories. Furthermore, a large Dutch pension fund organization; Pension Fund for Care and Well-Being (PGGM), chose not to invest anymore in Israeli banks because of their involvement in financing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

These actions could only be the tip of the iceberg to be followed by other businesses. Under these circumstances, picking a fight with Washington can only be described as an act of folly, especially by a senior cabinet member.

Israel should proceed cautiously with U.S.

The reaction in Washington to Ya’alon’s slur was relatively mild, describing it as offensive and inappropriate. There was almost a sense of personal affront on the part of the secretary of state, which is more than understandable, considering the political capital and personal credibility he has invested in the success of the peace process.

The only silver lining to this diplomatic incident is that it might be an eye opener for Kerry in realising that the forces working against him are much stronger that he had expected. Consequently, at a certain point in the next days or weeks the Obama administration will have to show more muscle and be more forceful, if it stands any chance of advancing the negotiations within a reasonable time frame.

One of the risks for Israel, as a result of Ya’alon’s insulting comments, is that he will find many doors closed to him in Washington. Considering how close the military-strategic relations between the two countries are, Ya’alon’s irresponsible behaviour can cause real damage to Israeli strategic position.

The issue is far greater than an Israeli minister giving free reign to his tongue. It begs the question whether the Obama administration is ready to ignore all of these background noises and exert its influence to bring both sides to the finish line.

Moreover, will the U.S. be ready by April to present its own plan in case both sides drag their feet and mobilise the international community to support it? Will it have the courage to expose who is truly blocking such an historical agreement from becoming a reality?

Inadvertently, Ya’alon’s brusque remarks can be taken by Kerry as a compliment: he can even wear it as a badge of honour, regardless that it was not intended as such. Instead of obsessive and messianic, Kerry might be seen as a very determined statesman with a vision and a mission to be accomplished. If he succeeds in accomplishing this mission no one will deserve the Noble Peace Prize more than he, for doing so against all the odds (and some politicians).

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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