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"Never and Forever": Jadaliyya Co-Editor Noura Erakat Discusses the Peace Process on Al Jazeera's "Empire"

[Screenshot from video below.] [Screenshot from video below.]

2013 marks the twentieth year since the historic signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn. In the two intervening decades, Israel's settler-colonial regime has become more entrenched and a viable and just solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict is more elusive than ever. Since assuming his post as Secretary of State,  John Kerry has exerted significant diplomatic energy to renew the peace talks  which last collapsed in 2010 over Israel's refusal to halt its settlement expansion in Occupied Palestinian Territory. While Secretary Kerry's efforts have successfully brought Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table, there is nothing substantively different about this round of talks than the many before it which failed to advance a viable solution.

In this special episode, The Peace Process: Never and Forever, Al Jazeera's "Empire," explores the peace talks at twenty. It takes a closer look at their  inability to resolve the conflict, their significant junctures, and the role of the United States. In the final segment of the special episode, Jadaliyya Co-Editor joins host Marwan Bishara, Nathan Thrall, Senior Analyst with the Middle East and North Africa Program of the International Crisis Group, and Peter Beinart, senior political writer at the Daily Beast magazine and editor-in-chief of its blog Open Zion to discuss the peace talks and the role of the United States.  Noura comments,

…I think what's missing from the discussion of peace talks is ironically that they can be very apolitical... We draw on liberal ideals of conflict resolution...Two sides just negotiate, and we forget that Israel is a nuclear power. The strongest military power in the Middle East with unequivocal US financial, military and political support, against a Palestinian population which is also under American tutelage. The Palestinian nation, so to speak, the bantustans, cannot exist without American aid...Today, the Palestinian economy is a charity economy and so we have this discussion in a vacuum of making concessions in negotiations, when there is one side that's able to completely alter the reality that exists, and change what's politically possible and the other side doesn't have that same leverage.

This episode cannot be seen on Al Jazeera English where it originally aired due to the stipulations of Al Jazeera America's agreement with Current TV. 


Transcript of the Discussion: 

Marwan Bishara (MB): Well gentlemen, Noura. Welcome to Empire. Let's take an overall look at the last 20 years. Peter, would you say the American role has been a burden or an asset for the peace process?

Peter Beinart (PB): Well, the peace process has not succeeded. So, clearly it's not been a success. Of course, the counter-factual is hard to answer. What would have taken America's place had the United States, let's say, followed Ron Paul's foreign policy and said, "We are not interested here." Would regional powers have emerged that would have played a more constructive role? I think America has made a lot of very serious mistakes. I am also dubious that any other power or constellation of powers would have been more successful because you do need to have the trust of Israel in order to broker a deal between the two sides.

MB: How does it look from Jerusalem? Is there a lockdown on American decision process when it comes to the Middle East?

Nathan Thrall (NT): I think the view from Jerusalem is that the role of the Americans can be, and is often, greatly overstated. In the past in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, you know that parties have come together without the Americans. The Americans have come later and I think that it is a mistaken idea that the Americans are necessary to the process. They are necessary to get the two parties together today because the two parties aren't interested in negotiating, and that makes the outcome of this round of talks all the more unlikely to succeed.

MB: You don't think between an occupied and an occupier, a weaker and a stronger party, there is a need for a third party to come in and balance?

NT: Absolutely. That is of course in the Palestinian interest, but is it in the Palestinian interest for that third party to be Israel's closest ally?

MB: Is it?

PB: No, it is probably not in the Palestinian interest, except that another power, let's say, the EU or some regional forces that would be more sympathetic to the Palestinian position, would probably not have the leverage over Israel. I think what you saw with the US in Europe was a somewhat effective playing of good cop and bad cop. You probably need to US plus in order to have the best chance of success.

NT: But don't you think that this example that you just cited is evidence that other parties such as the EU do indeed have leverage over Israel?

PB: They have leverage over Israel but not in, not without the United States. I think the nationalist reaction in Israel, to the EU alone, without America being there as the country that Israelis feel like has a genuine commitment to Israeli security. Given the way many Israeli Jews see the historical relationship with Europe, rightly or wrongly, I think creates a political dynamic in Israel that can actually be exploited by the right.

Noura Erakat (NE): I actually think that America is fundamentally part of the problem. Even though it can exert leverage over Israel, it has failed to do so consistently, it can for example condition…

The US can condition its funding to Israel, which is now a hundred and three billion since 1948, and hasn't done so in order to stop settlement expansion and yet, doesn't exist any meaning, doesn't exert any meaningful pressure, and beyond that, and I think you are right, Nathan, that we are over, we're over-exaggerating US power. When the Palestinians wanted to go to the UN for a General Assembly decision on statehood, it was able to do so in defiance of US opposition.

PB: I agree, but it's also very important to understand I think especially for people outside the United States, who have a tendency to imagine the pro-Israel lobby in Washington as a kind of conspiracy lurking in the corners (Noura: not at all), that this is an expression significantly, especially in the Republican Party, where American Jews don't wield a lot of influence, of a very deep-seated strain in American Christianity, that leads to a strong affinity with the idea of Jews being in the land of Israel, not to say the organization of American Jews is also very important, it's especially important because Arab Americans and Palestinian Americans and Muslim Americans are not well-organized. So they do not represent a significant counter-balance yet. They may well in the future generations.

NE: The US, if it wanted, can fundamentally change the balance of power on the ground and yet, does not wield any of those tools in a constructive fashion. It's blocked Israel from scrutiny 32 times in the UN Security Council using its veto power. It's its primary financier, it provides unfettered military support, in contravention of US law. It doesn't even apply the foreign assistance act or the arms export control act, which is US law vis-a-vis its gun, its weapons shipments. And so if the US wanted to, it could, and yet it doesn't want to, and it's unable to when it does.

MB: Would you say that America has been largely silent about the illegal expansion of settlements?

NT: Of course, I mean, it's US policy to condemn the settlements with regularity, but not to do much more than that, and so in terms of literal silence, it hasn't literally been silent, it regularly condemns.

MB: Largely silent.

NT: But when there was an announcement in terms of actions, the US has been silent in its actions for the most part.

PB: Yes. Washington turns, Nathan's right, although they make rhetorical statements America does not apply pressure to Israel to stop the subsidizing of settlements which I think is bad for America, and actually, bad for the Palestinians, and actually also bad for Israel.

NE: Had the US exerted some sort of accountability, we would not be in a position today where Israel has the most right-wing government that we have ever seen and it' s precisely because of our failure to exert that accountability that the Israeli leadership has become more emboldened, more brazen, more racist than it' s ever been before and I think it' s false hope to continue putting all our eggs in the American basket.

PB: We have also had this entire conversation as if it' s only Israel that has to move in order to make a solution possible.

MB: It' s not?

PB: No, I don' t think that' s the case. It depends, of course, on what you believe that solution would be. But if you believe, if you take as your parameter that it will look something like the Clinton parameters of December 2000, then in fact, that requires very significant concessions from the Palestinians probably on questions like refugees perhaps, on the question about, on questions of international troops in the Jordan Valley and other things.

MB: But let me ask you.

PB: So I agree. That Israel has a long way to go, more further than it did, and that that will require serious pressure, but that' s not the whole story.

MB: You just said that America is very close to Israel. There is no denying that. And then we talk about the Clinton parameters as if they are an objective reality. They are not.

PB: They are not. No, I didn't say they are an objective reality.

MB: So why would the Palestinians make concessions to a friend of Israel?

PB: The question in politics, the question is not really what the objective reality is. It is what the greatest degree of justice that is politically possible to have is. Right, and I think there is probably somewhere between the Clinton parameters and the Arab peace initiative. Right, and there are important ambiguities between the two but they have certain common things in common. The idea of the '67 lines maybe with small swaps, the idea of a divided Jerusalem. I think that is the fundamental basis upon on which we have the best likelihood of peace.

NE: Peter, I am really really glad you brought up politics and power, because I think what's missing from the discussion of peace talks is ironically, they can be very apolitical. We begin to have, we draw on liberal ideals of conflict resolution.

MB: You mean it' s all rhetorical?

NE: Two sides just negotiate, and we forget that Israel is a nuclear power. The strongest military power in the Middle East with unequivocal US financial, military and political support, against a Palestinian population which is also under American tutelage. The Palestinian nation, so to speak, the bantustans, cannot exist without American aid, and cannot exist without.

MB: You mean the Palestinian leadership.

NE: Palestinian leadership. Today, the Palestinian economy is a charity economy and so we have this discussion, in a vacuum of making concessions in negotiations, when there is one side that's able to completely alter the reality that exists, and change what's politically possible and the other side doesn't have that same leverage.

NT: There is a fundamental question that we are not asking here, which is, do the Clinton parameters or the Arab peace initiative, do they reflect a realistic resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

MB: And your answer.

NT: I am not sure that they are.

MB: Why?

NT: I think that they both tend to focus on issues, on problems derived from Israel's 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza and treating the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis as though it were created in June 1967, and that's clearly not the case.

MB: You mean it is also about dismissing the right of return for Palestinian refugees as anything realistic

NT: That's exactly right. And both the Arab Peace Initiative and the Clinton parameters and the entire Oslo framework are premised on this notion almost that no one would acknowledge that this is what it is, but more or less, that we are going to trade a solution of '67 in order to close the door on '48.

MB: It seems to me when you look at the last twenty years, at least, that America has a veto over whatever Israel must do in the Middle East. But Israel has a veto on whatever America wants in Palestine. That no matter what happens, it will be Netanyahu, not Obama, it will be Barak, not Clinton, it will be Sharon, not Bush, that have the last word over what's going to happen in the Occupied Territories. Hence, the American role is really limited.

PB: Remember the Labor Party, even till the late '90s was not even in favor of the Palestinian state at all. The movement that happened, in Israeli politics, between, over the course of the late 1990s to the 2000s, was very substantial and is what created the basis for Ehud Olmert going even further and that was significantly part of American pressure whether you think it's good enough or not.

NE: I think that you bringing up the US, the US' s inability to do something is not only reflective of the strength of the Israel Lobby which is not a conspiracy like the NRA and other lobbies; it' s just talented. It does what it does and knows how to leverage power and benefits from fortune of convergence with some US interests. 

MB: But is there an American interest in a powerful, expanded, expansive, confident Israel.

NE: Absolutely not. The US stands more to gain if it were to actually create a Palestinian state whether or not that actually serves Palestinian interests and actually meets their full spectrum of rights is another question. But the US stands more to gain by creating a Palestinian state. Because it mitigates, it neutralizes the criticism of the US in the Middle East as a hypocrite and that it doesn't really believe in human rights anywhere.

MB: Peter help us out here with the question of Kerry. Many people in Israel and Palestine are surprised. They don't understand what excites Kerry all of a sudden. Certainly there's nothing on the Israeli side that shows the way forward towards peaceful coexistence between two states. What is motivating him? Does he think he's going to be able to bring Palestinian concession or concessions out of the Palestinians?

PB: Well I think that for one thing, this has always been an area where you try to prove American leadership and I think Kerry thinks probably rightly that the era in which America is going to have any chance to exercise leadership towards a two-state solution, is coming to an end. So he may be the last American diplomat who can really make this effort. The effort is very important to America's prestige in the region and around the world and I think Kerry believes and I have to agree with him, that if it fails, the consequences could be much worse.

NT: I believe that Kerry has received some kind of private assurances that Netanyahu is willing to go further than the Americans had initially expected and I think to the degree there is some optimism around Kerry and his staff.

MB: Further, meaning?

NT: Meaning they had assumed that Netanyahu is fundamentally opposed to Palestinian statehood and through talking to him they I believe have come to the conclusion that he is genuinely interested in a Palestinian state and is willing to make larger territorial concessions than they had thought that he would be willing to do, maybe territorial concessions approaching those that Olmert had put forward in 2008.

MB: That sounds like deja vu all over again, no?

NE: It's a bit strange and I know you don't believe this but it's a bit ironic to say that they're expecting greater territorial concessions simultaneously as announcing 1200 new settlement units and so I think that so long as we continue this process based on the terms of Oslo, then it's bound to fail because Oslo if we remember its record has facilitated the entrenchment of Israeli settlement expansion, it's been process over substance so that we are applauding ourselves over the continuation of process absent substance, and it has done nothing to alter the balance of power. 

MB: Let's go back to our focal point. Let's call a spade a spade then. American leverage is not on Israel, it's on the Palestinian and the Arab side.

PB: America has exercised more leverage on the Palestinians cause the Palestinians are weaker, there's no question about it.

MB: And hence that is the engine of the process is that every time you come back and bring concessions out of the Palestinians and the Arabs.

PB: But the Palestinians also have leverage of their own. The leverage they have is -- 

MB:-- victimhood?

PB: No the leverage they have is to say bye-bye to the United States, internationalize the conflict. When Abbas goes or when the Palestinian Authority goes, I think it's that that creates a new reality.

NT:: I disagree wholeheartedly. I think that is the precise moment at which Palestinians have a shot at actually exerting some leverage. There is an entity that exists. It's not called the PA it's called the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And that entity will exist after the PA is gone and after Abbas is gone. Inshallah. And that entity is capable of negotiating in a much more powerful way if the PA did not exist. The leverage is not over the PA, not over the PLO.

MB: Why does America insist on the peace process. It's 20 years now.

PB: It's become a kind of touchstone for American leadership. I also think that there are many Americans who genuinely care a lot about what happens in that part of the world because of religious reasons, but I also think one shouldn't exaggerate it. I mean, you ask most Americans, what things they want their government to do, you could reach 100 things before they would get to this so in many ways it's an elite-driven thing and you saw the George W. Bush administration, for most of his presidency he wasn't really interested so I don't think that it is inevitable that an American administration will decide this is a priority.

NT: I think that there's another element here, which is that there are many American officials who believe that the conflict is intractable and they look at the situation on the ground, they see a situation that's deteriorating, they see more protests, they see that Abbas may take actions that will result in Israeli counter-actions and for them it's very simple. They enter this process and it puts those things on ice for a little bit. And so the process is better than no process. It's as simple as that.

NE: And the purpose of the process. I mean let's not delude ourselves. The purpose of the process is not to resolve the conflict, it's to contain it. And you're absolutely right, if we could put ice on this process and just keep everything under control so that there is no eruption of actually military violence, then it's fine because it gives the allure that nothing's happening, and yet we can't forget that the structural violence of occupation and apartheid continues against the Palestinians even in the absence of that military confrontation.

PB: I disagree. I think American leaders would like to solve the conflict.

NE: And that's why they contain it. And that's why they contain it. No they haven't done anything to solve it.

PB: They want to solve it according to the kind of parameters that Bill Clinton laid out. There may be people who disagree with that but I also agree that their second best alternative is to contain it because they're afraid of what happens if there's no process at all.

MB: Has it become a de facto regional forum led by America. An American-led regional order where everyone in the Middle East is judged according to the process. You're a good guy. You're for the process. If you're not for the process, you're the bad guy. Are you eye to eye with America you're probably with the process, if you're not, you're not with the process. The process has become the regional order, the compass. It's that foothold for America in the region.

NE: I think that the US has a lot of footholds and this is not the sole compass, it's one of many, and yes you're right that it's become a litmus, and it defines the US's relationship vis-a-vis most of the Middle Eastern countries, but the US can absolutely change this balance of power.

MB: But look at it, I mean they are, now they are basically absent from Iraq, although there have been meetings, absent from Iran and its nuclear project, absent from Syria, absent from Egypt, absent from Libya, the only place that remains is the Middle East peace process.

NT: The US looks at a region in which they are losing influence and they see that this is one place where they can actually exercise some influence and perhaps they're not going to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but they're at least, as I mentioned a second ago, they're at least going to prevent it from going into a downward spiral.

MB: Peace process as a strategic American national interest. The peace process is not necessarily peace.

NE: The investment in peace but the US just because it does, I think the US is exerting influence on a daily basis, just that who it decides to support, which countries it decides to fund, the military funding to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to Jordan, I think that the US is quite influential in the Middle East and continues to be so and there is no resistance against that, so yes, the peace process might be a fixture within that, but all it is, is a balance of power and maintaining the status quo --

MB: -- or imbalance of power.

NE: Or the imbalance of power that is very short-sighted in its prospects.

MB: Well short-sighted. Maybe, maybe not. Gentlemen, Noura, thank you. And I'll be back with a final note.

Postscript:

MB:: When it comes to the peace process, history repeats itself first as a tragedy, then a farce and back again. So if the appointment of Israel's darling, Dennis Ross as peace envoy was tragic, the appointment of Martin Indyk twenty years is certainly a farce.

It's comical that President Obama asks Israelis and Palestinians to show courage, leadership and originality, then appoints another Israel darling to head his peace efforts.

Indyk heads the Saban center, the Middle East wing of the Brookings Institution, the same Haim Saban who told the Israeli paper Haaretz that he' s an admirer of Ariel Sharon and dreams of being Israel's information minister.

Alas, Indyk has already gotten his dream job after serving at AIPAC, the Israel Lobby, and heading its think-tank, the Washington Institute.

And once again, hypocrisy has a face to go along. That's the way it goes.

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