It’s tempting to write off John Kerry’s efforts to undo one of the most intractable knots challenging world diplomacy before it’s even generated a wisp of steam.
But last week, in Washington, the US Secretary of State at least started the ball rolling by bringing together Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, if only for talk about talks.
Kerry has set a nine-month timeframe for his peace roadmap to flourish or flounder, as all other attempts have done since both sides signed up to the 1993 Oslo Accords.
But if all ends in acrimony, it should produce one, valuable indicator: we’ll find out which of the antagonists sincerely wants to reap a peace dividend, not widen the great divide.
Oddly, despite not even the starriest-eyed optimist prepared to bet a red US cent on the outcome, as the craziest region on earth goes madder by the minute this might be a propitious time to break the longest-running Middle East impasse.
Surrounding by chaos and bloodletting in Syria and Egypt – plus another Lebanese civil war looming – even a frosty peace with a Palestinian-West Bank state would allow Israel to concentrate on the far greater existential menace of a nuclear Iran (and plenty are betting the mad mullahs will have their weapon by the end of 2014).
And a deal would also leave Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, crowing, because it would deliver a triple-whammy to his arch foes, Hamas.
The murderous bigots of Gaza are already isolated, following the ousting of their Muslim Brotherhood buddies in Egypt and they’re in Iran’s bad books for refusing to back the Assad tyranny in Syria.
So, if only predicated on the theory that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, Abbas and Israel’s premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, have some common cause.
Israel, however, is nothing if not pragmatic. It has twice pursued the ‘land for peace’ route, with Egypt and Jordan, returning huge swathes of territory both lost in the 1967 Six Day War, when their invading armies were routed.
In Jordan’s case, it ceded control of a West Bank it grabbed illegally in the 1948 War of Israel Independence to the Palestinians, while Egypt gifted them the Gaza Strip.
A chilly peace continues to exist between the two Arab nations and Israel, but this never prevented shockwaves of Palestinian terrorism, ultimately forcing the Jewish state to construct a wall round itself, resulting in suicide bomb attacks plummeting by 90%.
Meanwhile, with everything in play under Kerry’s ambitious plan, the duplicitous Abbas still tried to insist on pre-conditions, first calling for talks to be based on the 1948 armistice – the indefensible ‘Auschwitz Lines’ in Israeli parlance – which never set borders.
Much to Abbas’s chagrin all historical evidence – i.e. UN Resolution 242 in 1967, which called for ‘secure and recognized boundaries’ and the Oslo Accords, which promoted ‘mutually-agreed’ land swaps – ignored the 1948 ‘lines’, thus exploding more myths Palestinian propagandists have tried to peddle to a gullible world for years.
Similarly, Abbas must have known his call for ‘refugees’ right of return’ would fall on deaf ears, since the 650,000 who originally fled or were ejected 64 years ago have now multiplied to 4.5 million.
With Israel’s population of around eight million – and already including 1.5 million Israeli Arabs, who enjoy lifestyles and freedoms unmatched anywhere in the Arab world – absorbing such a colossal influx would be demographic suicide.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu pre-empted an Abbas demand by freezing any new plans for West Bank settlement construction.
However, by attempting to impose his own agenda over Kerry’s, uncertainties arise as to whether the PA president is actually sincere in his quest for peace or whether he’ll invent a smokescreen excuse to abort the talks and blame Israel for their breakdown.
The Jews have a word for such outrageous impudence: chutzpah, best defined by the allegorical story of a man convicted of murdering both his parents, who pleaded for clemency from the judge…because he was an orphan.
However, as a positive gesture, Netanyahu agreed to phase the controversial release of 81 Palestinian prisoners – all vicious, hard-core terrorists, who have cold-bloodedly slaughtered and maimed thousands of Israeli civilians – and put any potential peace deal to a referendum.
With an overwhelming majority of Israelis favouring the creation of a viable, non-belligerent Palestinian state, subject to final terms, the plebiscite should be a formality.
In stark contrast, after decades of Palestinians being drip-fed a diet of hate-filled, anti-Semitic bile, Abbas faces a hard sell if his people are to accept peace with the Israelis, regardless of the boundless commercial, economic and social benefits it guarantees.
A snapshot of attitudes on the Palestinian ‘street’, as revealed by a recent Pew Survey shows how deeply they are locked into a medieval mindset: 40% believe suicide bombing is justified, 89% think homosexuality is immoral, that women must always obey their husband and favor the imposition of Sharia law, while 45% believe honor killing is permissible.
Additionally, Abbas’s leadership ratings are in tailspin and his credentials as a potential peacemaker are woeful.
In line with the established custom and practice of many Arab regimes, his presidency is tainted, because his term in office expired over four years ago and he adamantly refuses all calls for new elections.
With a bankrupt exchequer reliant on US and EU bailouts (plus, to some extent, Israel) – though with no significant contribution from his rich, Arab brethren, who frankly detest the Palestinians – Abbas’s presidency is rife with cronyism and graft.
There is little or no financial transparency and civil servants have gone unpaid for months.
In April, former World Bank economist, Salam Fayyad, acrimoniously quit as prime minister and in June, his replacement, Rami Hamdallah, an independent academic, resigned after only two weeks in the job.
Both cited clashes with the autocratic president and his chums from the Fatah party.
So the key question is: will Abbas give peace a chance and break with the traditions of his predecessors – Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Hitler-worshipping Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and venal, money-laundering despot, Yasser Arafat, who, in the words of Israel’s late, eminent Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, ‘Never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity’?
The world waits with hope – and places no bets on peace breaking out.