By Ramzy Baroud
No, it was not just “another Middle East peace conference,” as a columnist for Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper depicted the Paris peace conference, held on Jan. 15 with top official representation from 70 countries. If it was just another peace conference, representatives from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority (PA) would have attended as well.
Instead, it was a defining moment that we are likely to remember, the one that officially ended the peace process charade after 25 years. If the Madrid conference of October 1991 was the vibrant official start of peace talks between Israel and its Arab — including Palestinian — neighbors, the Paris talks of January 2016 were the sad termination of it.
As soon as the Madrid talks began, the positive energy and expectations that accompanied them began to fade. Even before the talks began, Israel had set political traps and erected obstacles. For example, it refused to deal directly with the Palestinian negotiating team led by the late Haidar Abdul Shafi (since, as far as Israel was concerned, Palestinians did not exist), and even protested that negotiator Saeb Erekat wore the traditional Palestinian headscarf.
It has been 25 years since that initial meeting. Since then, several of the original Palestinian delegation members have passed away; others have aged while talking about peace, but with no peace in sight. The then-young Erekat became “chief negotiator” of the PA, again, yet with nothing to talk about.
What is left to be negotiated when Israel has doubled its illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, when the number of Israeli settlers has grown from a negligible 250,000 in 1993 to over 600,000, when the rate of Palestinian loss of land has accelerated like never before since the war and occupation of 1967, and when Gaza has been under lock and key for over 10 years, suffering from war, polluted water and malnourishment?
Yet the Americans have persisted. They needed the peace process. It is an American investment, first and foremost, because American reputation and leadership depended on it. “We are joined at the hip with Israel,” said Professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of “The Israeli Lobby,” in a recent interview.
“What Israel does and how Israel evolves matters greatly for America’s reputation. This is why President (Barack) Obama — and President George W. Bush before him, and President Bill Clinton before him — went to great lengths to get a two-state solution.” Precisely. They persisted and failed, again and again, until the two-state solution (which was never a serious endeavor to
begin with) became a distant and eventually impossible quest.
As Israel’s political center moved sharply to the right under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US maintained its position, as if oblivious to the fact that “facts on the ground” have altered the political landscape beyond recognition.
Obama began his presidency in what some saw as an earnest push for renewed talks, which were halted or stalled during the Bush administration. Obama dispatched Sen. George Mitchell, whose negotiating skills in 2010-2011 could not move Israel from its obstinate position on settlement expansion, and dispatched his Secretary of State John Kerry, who tried unsuccessfully to revitalize talks between 2013 and 2014.
Obama must have, at one point, realized that these efforts were futile. For a start, Netanyahu seemed to have greater influence on the US Congress than the president himself. This is not an exaggeration.
When Netanyahu clashed with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal, he snubbed the US president and gave a talk to a joint Congress in March 2015, in which he chastised Obama and the “bad deal” with Iran. Obama appeared forlorn and irrelevant, as the representatives of the American people gave numerous standing ovations to a foreign leader who boasted, yelled, assigned blame and praise.
Kerry’s nostalgic last speech in late December was an indication of that epic failure, the gist of his plea being that it was all over. However, both Kerry and Obama have no one to blame but themselves. Their administration had the political clout and popular mandate to push Israel and exact concessions that could have served as the basis of something substantial. They chose not to.
Now Donald Trump is US president. He comes with an eerie agenda that looks identical to that of the current Israeli government of right-wingers and ultra-nationalists.
“We have now reached the point where envoys from one country to the other could almost switch places,” wrote Palestinian Professor Rashid Khalidi in The New Yorker. “The Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, who grew up in Florida, could just as easily be the US ambassador to Israel, while Donald Trump’s Ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, who has intimate ties to the Israeli settler movement, would make a fine ambassador in Washington for the pro-settler government of Benjamin Netanyahu.”
So that is it folks, the show is over. The era of the peace process is behind us, and early signs indicate that Palestinians are now realizing it as they are clearly seeking alternatives to the various overbearing US administrations.
Several administrations have contributed to the idea that peace was at hand, that Israel was willing to compromise, that pressure had to be applied (mostly on Palestinians) to end the seemingly equal “conflict,” and that the US was a neutral party and even-handed “honest broker.”
The Israelis did not mind playing along as long as the game did not jeopardize their colonialization of the occupied territories. The largely unelected Palestinian leadership joined in, seeking funds and meaningless political recognition. The rest of the world, including the UN, watched from afar or played their assigned, marginal role.
But now Israel does not need to accommodate the rules of the game anymore, simply because the American “broker” has lost interest. Trump understands that his country can no longer maintain policing a unipolar world, and has no interest in picking fights with regional power Israel.
Trump began his presidential campaign promising to keep an equal distance from Israelis and Palestinians, only to head in an extremely alarming direction with the promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus possibly igniting another Palestinian uprising.
Knowing that the US is no longer an ally, so-called Palestinian “moderates” are now seeking alternatives. On the day of Trump’s inauguration in a lavish party seen as the most expensive in history, Palestinian factions were meeting not in Washington, London or Paris but in Moscow.
The news of an agreement that will see the admission of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) received little media coverage, but it was consequential nonetheless. The timing (Trump’s inauguration) and the place (Moscow) were very telling of a changing political reality in the Middle East.
What are we to make of the Paris conference? It was a sad display of a final French-European-American attempt at showing relevance in a region that has vastly changed, in a “process” that existed on paper only, and in a political landscape that has become too complicated and diverse for the likes of President Francois Hollande (an ardent supporter of Israel to begin with) to matter in the least.
It was not just “another Middle East peace conference,” but the end of the American era in the Middle East.