Colin Irwin Sat 11 Jan 2014
On 6 December US Secretary of State John Kerry crossed the most important of Palestinian red lines when he presented Abbas with a proposal for Israel’s security that could have, potentially, left Israeli ‘boots on the ground’ in the occupied territories indefinitely. Why did he do this forcing Abbas to make representations directly to President Obama and the Arab League? Did the Palestinian negotiators not inform Kerry that this was a red line (unlikely), or not believing them had his own negotiators told him that it was a red line he could cross? But then why should they think this? Had their research team not detailed Palestinian public opinion on this issue? Or was Kerry, as some Palestinians suggested, supporting the Israeli position and if so was he now siding with the Israelis or, perhaps, crossing a red line to demonstrate to the Israeli right that this red line was where it was?
Crossing red lines should be done as little as possible and with very great care as they can, with the smallest miscalculation, bring negotiations to a premature end. This time Abbas went over Kerry’s head to higher authorities in Washington and Cairo. But how many times can he do this and will he be obliged to repeat this exercise for borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem? I think not so if Kerry did it to demonstrate a point to the Israeli right he should not make a habit of it in case it backfires and the Middle East peace process is, yet again, consigned to another sorry chapter in the history of the region.
If Kerry is siding with Israeli negotiating positions then the negotiations are doomed anyway so there is no point in pursuing this possibility any further. In Northern Ireland the Irish tried to get a united Ireland ‘by the back door’. This was done by suggesting that the proposed north-south cross-border body should have the power to legislate for all of Ireland as a whole. In law, effectively, one Ireland, but this was a red line for the Unionists. Fortunately there had been plenty of public opinion research done on this issue. It was indeed a red line, a deal breaker, but powers to legislate separately north and south and co-operate were OK so that is what happened.
Similarly, for Palestinians, a sustained IDF presence on the West Bank for security purposes would be seen as continued occupation ‘by the back door’. All the polls, including mine, clearly demonstrate that Israel’s top priority is security but this has to be balanced out with the Palestinian’s top priority, a Palestinian state and an end to occupation. The Americans and their allies can ‘square this circle’ by deploying their own forces and both Israelis and Palestinians are going to have to accept a compromise along these lines. So why wasn’t this, or something similar, proposed by the Kerry team? Did they simply drop the negotiating ball? If they do this again with borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem then it might be better to just end the negotiations now.