John Kerry's Middle East 'talks': Peace is not made through pantomime

Today’s meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators has a clear element of staging

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Who doesn’t like a spectacle?

We shake our heads, of course, and groan when we hear about the latest theatrics of a showman politician like Robert Mugabe. We flinch when he tells his opponents, as he did on Monday,  to “go hang”. But is there something in us that almost enjoys the crude entertainment value such play-actors bring to the dull, dreary real world of slowly improving lives, taking difficult decisions and righting injustice?

The sound of a pantomime president calling his critics “dogs” and “pigs” and threatening to leave the flesh of his enemies rotting in the garbage – as the now seven-times Zimbabwean leader did in his first speech since being re-elected – will always win our attention, although we’re probably missing the real significance of what’s going on backstage in Harare. That’s why they do it, of course.

Every time the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his 15 minutes at the microphone in the UN General Assembly to make an ignorant remark about the Holocaust – destined less for Israel than for a segment of his divided domestic audience – our diplomats marched out of the room to show the full extent of their disgust, thus guaranteeing him even bigger headlines. In acting shocked, they too, were playing a rehearsed role, achieving nothing, but sending the signal expected of them.

On the face of it, events in Jerusalem today – when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will sit down together formally, three years after the collapse of the last such negotiations and a full 20 years after the Oslo accords were initially signed – should be the very opposite of such theatre. Here, finally, are the first, tiniest fruits of slow, painful diplomacy at work. It is, we are told, a parallel with Northern Ireland, when Tony Blair and his counterparts in the Irish Republic eventually got to grips with the intractable details of that epic conflict for long enough to make a difference.

Today’s meeting has an unmistakeable element of staging, of the theatrics that our democratically-elected leaders know they must deliver. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been applauded for seeking to draw Israelis and Palestinians back to the table after years of nothing but betrayal and lost lives. And much has been made of his uncynical dedication to the cause and of his shuttling back and forth from Washington to the region to unlock the stalemate at a time when his wife has been seriously ill.

Yet to present, once again, the resumption of direct negotiations as if there is an equivalence between two evenly-matched “sides”, as if both parties must match respective “concessions”, is dishonest. Not only are the Palestinians in a profoundly weaker situation, but we also know that to imagine Israel ending its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or the US pulling the plug on its support for Israel unless it agrees to budge on settlements, is fanciful.

Both those things would have to happen if the Palestinians are to have enough of their own land left to create a viable state. So scant is the good faith on offer from Benjamin Netanyahu on the eve of talks that he has announced an expansion of more than 900 new homes in illegal East Jerusalem settlements on Tuesday, on top of the additional 1,200 in East Jerusalem and the West Bank set out at the weekend.  Again, this is about choreographing messages: Bibi can’t be seen to release 100 or so Palestinian prisoners under American pressure without a quid pro quo.

The US and its allies, meanwhile, have an urgent interest in seeing the Middle East problem resolved and peace restored via the creation of a Palestinian state. But even this does not appear to trump President Obama’s reluctance to stand up to Israel over settlements. Mr Kerry was quick to reassure all sides yesterday that the new housing decision was “somewhat expected” and would not have any bearing on the talks.

So why go through the motions? Why create the illusion of a peace process rolling merrily forwards again after so many years in the sand if no such thing is happening or likely to happen, despite the fact that the shape (“contours”, as diplomatic parlance prefers) of the best possible resolution was outlined under the Clinton administration as long ago as 2002?

For John Kerry and Barack Obama there are, of course, legacy issues. The Israeli Prime Minister and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, are both fearful of isolation. So, after a long dearth of activity, all sides agree to resume “talks”. The trouble, though, is that convening very publicly-flagged negotiations and raising expectations is worse than empty symbolism if the basis for any fair outcome is absent from the outset. Surely it would be better to keep negotiations below the radar until some clear incremental progress is underway.

The mere existence of the resumed  “peace process” risks becoming the end in itself and as long as the protagonists can send the message they want – that they are “engaged in talks” –  they have an excuse to do little else. And that is a piece of theatre those who have suffered so much from this conflict could do without.

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