Kerry’s unlikely miracle

Kerry’s unlikely miracle

Mahir Ali
Alternative to a two-state solution is a single secular state. It would be little short of a miracle were the most intractable conflict in the Middle East somehow to be sorted out while the broader region is embroiled in an unprecedented level of turmoil.

That, though, is the prospect held out by John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, who after a dedicated bout of shuttle diplomacy managed to cajole representatives of the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table last week after an extended hiatus.

The “final status” talks, supposed to kick off this week after Eid, will lead after a gestation period of nine months to a Palestinian state. At least that’s how the would-be American midwife sees it. Is Kerry merely fantasizing, or is his injection of optimism into a fraught relationship, notwithstanding its extended history of stillbirths and late-term abortions, based on privileged clinical information?

The territories on which Israel has built Jewish settlements, in clear defiance of international law, will be among the major issues to be tackled in the forthcoming discussions led by Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, with the role of purported “honest broker” being played by Martin Indyk, a former lobbyist for Israel and U.S. ambassador to the country during the Clinton administration. His appointment has understandably caused outrage in some quarters, being perceived as a clear indicator of which side Washington is on. At the same time, though, he is seen as someone who actually believes in a two-state solution and does not instinctively kowtow to the Likudites.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is not only a Likudite but presides over a cabinet featuring influential elements even further to the right, including those to whom the very idea of negotiations with the Palestinians is anathema. It took considerable arm-twisting for Netanyahu to persuade a majority on his cabinet to sanction the release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners in the run-up to last week’s preliminary talks. Netanyahu himself has over the years frequently repeated the mantra that negotiations would be pointless, as the Israeli government does not have a “partner for peace.” It’s unclear exactly what persuaded him to change his view of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who, mind you, succeeded Yasser Arafat in that post in large past because Israel and the West considered him sufficiently malleable.

Any agreement that might be reached will then be put to referendums on both sides of the shifting divide. It could falter at that stage, but there is, not surprisingly, plenty of skepticism whether that stage will ever be reached. The negotiations could fall apart well before the nine-month deadline. Or they could stretch long beyond it. It’s barely possible that proportionate American pressure on both sides could yield a mutually acceptable outcome.

The obvious alternative to a two-state solution is a single secular, democratic state. Although there seems to be growing support on either side for something resembling such an entity, it falls far short of a majority. It is customary to refer to the status quo as untenable, and it keeps being whittled away by “facts on the ground”, but, sadly, the chances of it remaining vaguely intact are far greater than that of a Kerry-induced miracle by next May.

One can always hope, of course, that the Obama administration’s last-ditch bid for a lasting Middle East legacy does not founder, but its chances of success unfortunately seem infinitesimal.