Diplomacy: Looking for ways to douse the spark

Following a well-worn script, Ban, Kerry and others come to calm the situation. Happily, this time the ambitions are low.

Netanyahu and Kerry meeting in Berlin (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Netanyahu and Kerry meeting in Berlin
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
And now the diplomatic dance begins, again.
After three weeks of runaway terrorism on the streets, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived for a quick visit midweek; US Secretary of State John Kerry – after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday in Berlin – is expected to meet on Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, along with Jordan’s King Abdullah II; EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is doing the same; and the French are floating various proposals to take to the UN Security Council.
All predictable, all the traditional steps taken in a time of Mideast crisis.
Ban did what Ban does in these situations – he comes, meets with both sides, issues platitudes about the need for both sides to show restraint, and declares how important it is to keep that light of hope burning.
The UN secretary-general dutifully fulfilled his role in the script. Netanyahu obliged by meeting politely with Ban, who then went on to meet politely with Abbas, to what appears to be absolutely no effect. It’s a dance whose steps – and way of ending – are known far in advance.
Jerusalem does not take Ban’s efforts overseriously, as the organization that he heads is seen as a big part of the problem rather than the solution.
Witness Wednesday’s one-sided resolution adopted by UNESCO, the UN’s cultural heritage agency, condemning “Israeli aggression” on the Temple Mount and declaring that the Jewish holy sites of Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs are an “integral part of Palestine.”
Similar disdain, to a certain extent, characterizes Israel’s view of the EU’s efforts. Netanyahu will listen to Mogherini, and lament both Abbas’s incitement and the EU’s acceptance of it, but will place little stock in the EU’s ability to play a constructive role in calming down the situation.
Brussels is not seen in Jerusalem as a particularly honest broker on all things Palestinian but, rather, as the institution that nurtures – perhaps more than any other – the hope among the Palestinians that if they press long enough and hard enough, the international community will deliver to them what they publicly say they want: a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital, and some kind of “fair and just” accommodation for the refugees.
The very skeptical Israeli view of the EU in any diplomatic process is reinforced by steps taken by France, which this week considered bringing a resolution to the UN Security Council to place international observers on the Temple Mount.
This idea, which Israel would never accept, and which even Jordan and the Palestinians have apparently rejected, is born of a burning French diplomatic desire to always do something, anything, in the Mideast – especially when there seems to be a stalemate or vacuum.
It is also the product of sour relations currently prevailing between Paris and Jerusalem, as well as a lingering French hope for the internationalization of Jerusalem – for the establishment of a corpus separatum in Jerusalem under a special international regime – which France hopes to be a part of.
So with the UN out, the EU out, and France out, that leaves the US.
But it is not as if Jerusalem is harboring any hopes that Kerry will be able to ride in and save the day.
From Jerusalem’s perspective the US track record in the region is not sterling, and though it appreciates Washington’s desire to help, there is little illusion that high-profile, high-level meetings will have any immediate effect on the ground.
And while Jerusalem is not waiting for Kerry with bated breath, it was clear from the beginning that he would get involved. An uptick in terrorism and violence leads to a well-worn pattern in Washington: condemnations of the terrorism, then statements that anger Israel about proportionality or settlements, followed by calls for restraint on both sides, and then meetings with the leaders.
But this current spurt of terrorism and violence is different from previous rounds, in that there is no identifiable organization – such as Hamas and Fatah’s Tanzim militia – to hold directly responsible for the bloodshed. This time it is more amorphous, individual terrorists incited by calls for Jewish blood on Facebook and from various leaders, going out to kill Jews.
The lack of a clear organizational structure behind the terrorism makes it more difficult for the security services to stop, because it is much more difficult to gather intelligence on an individual who grabs a knife and goes out to kill than on attacks directed by an organization.
Also, there is not one person seemingly in control who may be pressured to cease the violence.
It is not as if Kerry can talk to Abbas and convince him to issue a call to his people to “hold your horses,” and the horses will obediently be held. Abbas does not have anything near that type of control – many of the horses simply do not heed him.
This time around, thankfully, neither the State Department nor Kerry are inflating expectations; they are not talking about Kerry’s separate meeting with the leaders as a potential breakthrough for restarting the diplomatic talks and bringing a peace deal in a number of months.
Washington, it should be remembered, is still engaged in its own Mideast policy reassessment, a policy reassessment brought about after the breakdown of the Kerry-led peace talks in April 2014, and re-announced after Netanyahu’s preelection statement – which he later retracted – of less than full fealty to the notion of a two-state solution.
Rather, this time the bar has been set low, with the goals very limited.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday that the meetings would deal with “practical ways in which political breathing space can be had to help end the violence.”
No overreaching there, just looking for breathing space. The breathing space that Kirby mentioned but did not elaborate upon is likely to be an attempt – in discussions with Netanyahu, Abbas and especially Jordan’s King Abdullah – to come up with a clear set of procedures for governing the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount has – like so many times over the last century – been the spark to violence against Jews. To douse the fire, there will be some need to deal with the spark, but this has to be done in a way where both Israel and the Palestinians can say that they have not given in.
In recent days Kerry has spoken about the need for clarity. Everyone talks about the status quo on the Temple Mount, but there is little understanding of what that entails.
“Israel understands the importance of the status quo and... our objective is to make sure that everyone understands what that means,” Kerry said at press conference on Monday in Madrid, adding that “we are not seeking a new change or outsiders to come in; I don’t think Israel or Jordan wants that, and we’re not proposing it. What we need is clarity.”
The new “clarity” is expected to involve enhanced coordination and cooperation with Jordan, possibly even more Jordanian representatives on the site, in such a way as to undercut the spurious charge that Israel is somehow threatening al-Aksa Mosque.
Former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror said in an Israel Radio interview this week that he had little expectation regarding Kerry’s meeting with Netanyahu or Abbas, because the US has little impact on the Palestinians – which is true.
But the US does have leverage on Jordan, and this leverage may now be needed to get Abdullah to take a greater role in dayto- day administration and involvement at the site – if only as a way to suck the oxygen out of the lie propelling the current round of terrorism: that Israel is endangering al-Aksa.