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talking politics

When Kerry fell in love with Lieberman

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Haaretz is trying to sell us a new Avigdor Lieberman. In a headline from January 2, 2014, the newspaper notes that the reinstated Foreign Minister says Israel must give John Kerry’s peace efforts a chance. According to the article’s author, commentator Barak Ravid, Lieberman has changed his tune. He’s now willing to grant the US Secretary of State what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long refused to give: the chance to push the negotiations as far he can, free of provocations. Thus on the Israeli side of the barricade, there is a degree of cautious optimism.

According to Ravid, the Americans know that if Lieberman supports the “framework agreement” that Kerry is working on (or does not reject it out of hand), this will be the ultimate seal of approval from the current coalition. It seems that Kerry has no need to persuade Netanyahu, and certainly he has no need to take PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) into consideration. From now on, Lieberman is the new expert, and so we can only guess the content of this framework agreement, if it ever sees the light of day.

However, if we peruse the editorial of Al-Quds, which is published in East Jerusalem, we get an entirely different picture. Here we find no cautious optimism. Instead, we find all Netanyahu’s provocations noted, including MK Miri Regev’s bill proposing annexation of the Jordan Valley. “Why don’t we put an end to this fiasco which is being used as a cover for [Israel’s] plans?” the newspaper asks. “Why do we continue to busy ourselves with these proposals, which everyone knows are worthless, when even those leading the negotiations confirm this fact? Why do we wait, and till when will we wait? Has the leadership no alternative? In any case, the nation expects and demands that the negotiations will not be prolonged, even if at this stage it is impossible to quit, because Kerry is chasing ghosts.”

When we put the two pictures together, we get a better perspective on the negotiations. Kerry’s maneuvers are intended to buy time, in light of the fact that the talks are going nowhere. Lieberman too wants to put off the end, which is liable to be very costly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, given the world’s high expectations that Israel will take significant steps. Kerry’s continued visits to the region testify to the fact that the talks are deadlocked and the US fears they will break down completely. Kerry put a time limit on the negotiations, and as the deadline approaches, he’s doing all he can to avoid the showdown.

This is not surprising – after all, these efforts to postpone the end have been made for the last twenty years, and the more time passes, the more the rift widens, while the achievement of a real agreement becomes ever less likely. In light of the deadlock in the talks(which in fact never really got off the ground), it turns out that instead of pressuring Israel using all possible means, Kerry is willing to make do with yet another interim agreement, and thus he in fact leads us back to the failed Oslo process. The Oslo Accords were possible only because core issues – borders, settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and the question of the refugees from 1948 – were put off to some unspecified future date. Since then, the settlement blocs have grown, the rightwing has strengthened its political hold, and instead of talking about fundamental issues, Israel puts forward new and ever-stranger demands, including the demand for recognition of itself as a Jewish state, and the demand for security arrangements which in practice mean the continuation of the occupation for many more years. The issue of the settlements has not even been raised, and there is no real discussion on it in the Knesset either. From what we hear, in fact, the framework agreement does not mention the issue at all.

The Palestinians understand that the longer the negotiations continue, the more land Israel grabs. The settlement project continues apace, this time with the acquiescence of the Americans, who have no longer demand a settlement freeze as a condition for renewed talks.

The more the US tries to pander to the Israeli rightwing, the more Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority (PA) lose the trust of the people. Al-Quds is not an opposition newspaper; it expresses the PA position. Its reading of the situation reflects the Palestinians’ growing distress and fatigue in light of the lack of progress in the talks. Kerry wants to gain time, but the Palestinians have no time. The dire economic situation in the West Bank is certainly a factor in the position of the PA, which adamantly refuses to prolong the talks in return for yet another framework agreement that isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Wages in the Palestinian areas do not keep pace with rising cost of living, and the prices, in shekels, reflect the Israeli standard of living, not the extremely low wages in the territories. Youth unemployment continues to climb, which might also explain the increase in violence—as a result of despair. Moreover, Kerry’s framework agreement contains no proposal for immediately alleviating the current misery, including the chronic deficits which have delayed the wages of some 150,000 PA employees, the continued presence of the army, and the settlers’ violent scheming.

The Israeli rightwing’s systematic refusal to discuss the issues at the heart of the conflict, above all the settlements, creates a false mood which is explained very easily by Naftali Bennett, Uri Orbach, and Uri Ariel, all of Habayit Hayehudi. These members of the national-religious Zionist party say that the lack of a final agreement with the Palestinians is a natural situation that we must simply learn to live with. They hold that it’s better to focus on other issues such as the economy, which Bennett has been appointed to manage, housing, which is Ariel’s home turf, or caring for the elderly, which is Orbach’s field. On the other hand, some say the freeze in negotiations will lead to a third intifada, and point to every stone-throwing incident or stabbing as a sign that it is on the horizon. The Defense Ministry calms the waters, claiming that these occurrences are merely attempts to create a certain atmosphere, and that the PA even has a hand in incitement, encouraging a few individuals to attack Israelis.

In reality there is no sign of a third intifada, for the simple reason that there is no political leadership with an agenda or program capable of leading an uprising. The first intifada was led by the PLO, and its aim was to achieve a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. The second intifada came following deep disappointment with the Oslo Accords; led by Hamas, its aim was to overcome the occupation through armed struggle. Today there is no alternative political force to lead a civil uprising against the corrupt leaderships in Gaza and Ramallah.

But the fact that there is no third intifada approaching does not mean that the occupation will be left to continue undisturbed. To sell the illusion that a normal life can be lived with the occupation, the Israeli rightwing needs the PA. Without it, and without funding from the EU and the US, Israel would not be able to lead a “normal” life while maintaining the occupation. The settlements can expand endlessly only as long as the PA is in place, relieving Israel of the need to return to direct occupation; the PA provides services such as health and education which otherwise Israel’s Civil Administration would be obligated to perform. This “normality” is possible because the PA is willing to cooperate with the situation, which has continued for more than 20 years. But those watching events in the occupied territories know that the PA’s days are numbered. What Israel faces is not a third intifada, but the very real possibility that the PA will simply collapse. This absurd situation, in which the PA survives on the tiny budget of a local authority while the people are unemployed and hungry, can be sustained only if there is hope for change. Without hope, the PA loses its raison d’être, and it will simply cease to exist. The lack of a genuine peace process will also spell the end of Israel's crazy rightwing. The latter builds on the idea that quiet can be maintained for ever, enabling it to proceed with its plans.

  • Translated by Yonatan Preminger
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