October 29, 2015
Palestinians remain deeply dissatisfied with the status quo and in the absence of any progress towards the two-state solution their discontent hits the surface usually in the form of some violence. And whenever there is violence, Israel says that she will not tolerate incitement, terrorism; Palestinian leadership calls for an end to subjugation and occupation; UN Secretary General urges calm; the Quartet issues a statement advising restraint; finally, the US Secretary of State rushes to the region to find a way to put the episode behind because such violence always puts Washington on the spot by virtue of her special relationship with Israel. By and large, the current picture fits the pattern with two differences.
Firstly, the atmosphere between the US and Israel has somewhat changed. This is how PM Netanyahu’s and Secretary Kerry’s remarks to the press started off in Vienna on October 22, 2015:
“John, it’s good to see you again. I want to thank you and the United States for condemning the terrorist attacks against Israel, for standing up for Israel’s right of self-defense, and also for standing up for Israel in UNESCO. All of that is deeply appreciated…” (Mr. Netanyahu then continued with comments on Hamas and President Abbas.)
“Well, Mr. Prime Minister, thank you. I am happy to be here to meet with you.
“We have to stop incitement, we have to stop the violence. And I think it’s critical. Obviously, this conversation that you and I will have is very important to settle on the steps that will be taken that take us beyond the condemnation and beyond the rhetoric. It is absolutely critical to end all incitement and all violence, and to find a road forward to build the possibility that is not there today for a larger process…”
The difference in tone is quite striking. PM Netanyahu tried to put words into Secretary Kerry’s mouth and give the impression that he enjoyed full US support but Mr. Kerry remained reserved.
In early 2014, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed despite strenuous efforts by Secretary Kerry. On July 8, 2014 the seven-week-long Gaza war started resulting in great loss of life and destruction. As the Iran nuclear deal inched towards finalization Mr. Netanyahu launched a campaign to defeat it. Ignoring basic rules of diplomatic practice he went to Washington to defy President Obama in the Congress. It is impossible to imagine that none of this had an adverse impact on relations between the two administrations, if not the two countries. This is not going to change no matter what is said when PM Netanyahu visits Washington on November 9.
The Iran nuclear deal and the Syrian conflict diverted attention from the Palestinian problem but this could not last. Such questions hardly ever allow themselves to be forgotten. President Abbas’ political moves to enhance Palestine’s status at the UN, his address to the UN General Assembly and the wave of stabbings led PM Netanyahu to target him personally and even say that it was the grand mufti of Jerusalem who convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews. This was an attempt to demean Palestinians but it backfired.
Secondly, international criticism of PM Netanyahu’s policies has been on the rise starting with the Gaza war. Language used by the EU and the UN has become stronger and there have been initiatives which have upset Israeli government like the French proposal regarding the deployment international observers at Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.
The ostensible reason for the last round of clashes is the conflict over the administration of the holy sites. And, as Secretary Kerry announced before his departure from Amman last Sunday, a stopgap solution has been found: all sites on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif will be put under 24-hour video coverage to prevent anybody from disturbing its sanctity.
This is what Mr. Kerry had to say regarding the future:
“… I especially want to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas, and our hosts here in Jordan for the seriousness of purpose that they brought to our discussions in furtherance of this effort of calming things down and ending the violence, and equally importantly of finding a specific road forward so that we’re not just ending violence for a moment but we are creating a path to a legitimate future…”
President Abbas could have been a credible partner for that new path to a legitimate future but many Middle East analysts believe that the end of his era is near (*). Should that path is not embarked on soon Israel will be likely to miss him later.
(*) Nathan Thrall, “The End of the Abbas Era”, 20 October 2015, London Review of Books, LRB blog.