Seldom has such great pressure been applied by so many interfering nations to such a parochial issue! Not only has John Kerry just been in Israel AGAIN to push his Plan B framework document on both the Israelis and Palestinians, but rumour has it David Cameron and Angela Merkel will be following hot on his heels to push the plan from Europe’s angle.
Five months into nine of the US-enforced peace talks, Secretary of State Kerry knows the writing is on the wall for any hope of a full signed agreement, hence “Plan B” (or is it “Plan Zee” now); a document aiming to set parameters for future talks leading to a final resolution at some unspecified point in the future. (Do I hear “fudge”?)
Since a Middle East peace took over from the Cold War as America’s “must-solve” issue for Presidents and their Secretaries of State, Bill Clinton has probably come the closest to getting ink on paper for any kind of final status agreement and, as we know, the ink never actually made it.
But all the signs are that the US – world policeman and erstwhile champion of enforcing democracy on people who don’t want it – is doing an about face and looking for less troubled regions to get involved in.
Just under a year ago in March 2013 Thomas Donilin, the then National Security Adviser to President Obama, made “prepared remarks” to the Asia Society in New York. Now neither the name nor the Society actually mean much to me personally, but “prepared remarks” by such a highly placed US official means that this is what the administration wants the world to hear!
What the world heard from Mr Donilin was that the US is “…rebalancing our global posture… after a decade defined by 9/11, two wars, and a financial crisis,” . To you and me, I guess that says that the world’s superpower is taking its eyes off the Middle East and looking in another direction for its strategic and economic future.
Mr Donilin was clear that domestic economic strength is the foundation for American world influence and she needs to engage with the vibrant economies of South East Asia to recover from the international banking disaster she started back in 2008!
So, America under President Obama has decided to stop poking its finger into unsuccessful and unpopular Middle Eastern pies, build up the piggy bank at home and then look for other pastures for future American intervention (some might say interference). Not that I’m the cynical type, of course!
There are both positive and negative reasons why the mighty US is making this 180 degree foreign policy change. Her recent experiences East of Suez have not been helpful for her international reputation. Iraq is in a worse state than she was before the second Gulf War and we have yet to see what kind of vacuum the withdrawal of US and other troops will leave in Afghanistan.
Weaknesses exposed over the Syrian chemical weapons incident, part-withdrawal of military aid to Egypt and a fudge over a nuclear agreement with Iran have left America diplomatically weak and less influential than for some years.
Positively however, as reported on the “Daily Finance” website this weekend, US oil production has increased by more than 50% over the past five years, driven by the success of “fracking” and similar technologies. In the same period domestic demand has stagnated, leading both to less dependence on OPEC oil and to a prediction that the US could even become an oil-exporter in the next few years!
Besides being under less pressure to please formerly essential Arab sources of oil and with a few embarrassments to leave in the past, is there other evidence of this strategic about face? Well, yes there is.
Back in November of 2011, I was visiting family in Sydney, Australia. One of the big news items and talking points was a visit by President Obama, dropping in for a few days to agree a “rotational deployment” of US marines in Darwin.
Speaking to the Australian parliament, President Obama took a strong tone against Chinese human rights and emphasised that the “pivot” of American refocussing from Eastwards to Westwards had been a deliberate strategic decision: “…the United States will play a larger and stronger role in shaping this region,” he said. Some in the Middle East must be heaving a sigh of relief at the change!
Beyond stationing marines in Australia (lucky guys), the Obama administration has been deepening America’s trade relations more generally with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), calling the trade grouping “…an increasingly important U.S. economic partner” according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
So what does American “refocussing” and “pivoting” have to do with talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah?
The deliberate decision to turn towards the Pacific region has been matched by an equally deliberate decision to wind down US intervention in the Middle East. As a Ha’Aretz article put it in May 2013, “After having scrambled the eggs in the Middle East, it [the US] is now trying to flee from the omelet that is going up in flames.”
But no-one likes to go out on a bad note. The negotiations John Kerry has pushed on to the Israelis and Palestinians and the developing nuclear agreement with Iran are America’s last chances to bow out from intensive Middle East involvement on a positive note.
Despite the hugs and smiles in Brussels in November, the Iran interim agreement was a fudge that has reversed the effect international sanctions were having. The supposedly more final agreement to come is unlikely to remedy this, especially as European and US businesses are already flocking to Tehran to take advantage of the relaxed conditions.
As a lot of people could have predicted five months ago, the Israeli/Palestinian talks have not produced a peace agreement or even come close. Red lines still abound and both sides have refused to accept American proposed answers on several issues.
Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas turned down the American security proposal, deadlocking on the issue of continued Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. Mr Abbas has refused in writing ever to accept Israel as a Jewish state and just a few days ago Mr Netanyahu complained publicly to John Kerry at Abbas’ glorification of the terrorists released by Israel as part of the negotiating process. Netanyahu doubts the Palestinians’ commitment to peace – I wonder why?
Kerry claims that his framework document “…will seek to appeal to all parts of the conflict, including the refugee issue and Jerusalem and …pave the way for a final agreement,” I have a strong feeling he may be the only person who actually believes that!
This last weekend’s manic shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Ramallah, Amman and Riyadh has left the Jordanians, the Palestinians and the Arab League refusing to accept his parameters. With the League supporting him, Abbas does not need to change his own positions on borders, Jerusalem and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Should both Israel and the Palestinians finally reject the US framework document over the next few weeks, America will leave the Middle East with a whimper and not a bang – mind you, going by past US interventions in the region maybe that’s a good thing!