Udo von Massenbach
A well-known American bureau chief in Israel of a major US newspaper always prided himself with knowing the key to getting Israel to politically move in the peace process. You must use invisible hands to hurt them, he told me shortly after the first intifada broke out. The Israelis must feel the pain without being able to clearly identify or expose the source of the pain, he said.
A look at the workings of the Obama administration in the last few weeks clearly points to the fact that they seem to have adopted this advice. Speaking during her confirmation hearing at the US Congress, the next US ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers, reversed a statement she had made years earlier. In 2002, Power proposed imposing a peace deal on Israelis and Palestinians militarily, even if such a policy alienated wealthy pro-Israel American Jews. Power totally recanted her statement. “I gave a long, rambling and remarkably incoherent response to a hypothetical question that I should never have answered,“ she said.
The reversal of the position of the nominated UN ambassador is not simply an act of self survival. It reflects clearly the tactics of the Obama-Kerry administration of trying to convince Israel without leaving any marks of pressure. This policy seems very close to one articulated two decades earlier in the lead up to the Madrid Peace talks by former US Secretary of State James Baker. In a statement regarding how the US plans to get Israel to change its policies, Baker rejected the idea of pressure. He pledged to „reason, to cajole, to plead,“ but not to pressure Israel into making peace with Arab nations.
Learning from earlier experiences, John Kerry has chosen to keep all talks behind a wall of secrecy. In announcing his mini-breakthrough in the Jordanian capital Amman, Kerry confirmed that the details will not be made public at present and warned that even if information is made public, he is the only party authorized by both Israelis and Palestinians to announce any particulars that have been agreed upon.
US Secretary of State John Kerry steps out of an SUV as he prepares to depart from the Mukataa following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, July 19, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Mandel Ngan)
While the slight changes of policy on the Israeli side appear to have been connected to the Palestinians‘ agreement to not challenge Israel in various UN agencies, the real pressure on Israel came from a different source.
The binding decision by all 28 member-countries of the European Union to separate the Golan Heights, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from the State of Israel came as a powerful reminder of the kind of pressure that the Americans can exert with invisible hands. The connection between the July 16 ruling and Kerry’s — at the time — blocked peace efforts was not lost on the Washington Post. In a lead report, the Post’s headline read “EU takes action against Israeli settlements as Kerry renews push for Mideast peace.”
The report notes that the decision, made on June 30, was not announced until July 16, making it clear that the timing of the announcement was not at all coincidental. The public effects of the EU decision clearly helped make the final push needed to improve the chances for the current breakthrough. The EU decision has also clearly encouraged reluctant Palestinians since it is yet another clear response to the Palestinian desire that the 1967 borders be accepted as the basis of peace talks. With the binding EU declaration, it is expected that the remaining 132 UN members will have to follow suit and refuse any dealings with products that are produced in areas occupied in the June 1967 war and are being marketed as being made in Israel.
Naturally, the road to peace in the Middle East is long and full of obstacles. But if we are to judge the Kerry mission and tactics in any serious way, we would need to conclude that a list of similar actions are available to the US mediator to use (on both sides) as he sees fit.
Public pressure on Israel by the US is clearly difficult considering the pro-Israel lobby and its powerful effects on the US Congress. Instead, the US appears to be following the idea of making the Israelis feel the hurt without being able to blame the US administration for applying this hurt.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab