Kerry Gets Extreme Makeover as EU Sanctions Show Nasty Alternative

Compared to prospective Euro-punishment, U.S.-sponsored peace talks are now the lesser of evils, even for those seeking an unabated settlement drive.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The crocodile tears were overflowing this week as right-wing Israeli politicians bemoaned the deadly effect of the new EU directive on settlements on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace mission.

The very same people who a day or two before had tarred, feathered, ridiculed, and dismissed Kerry’s efforts as irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst, were suddenly singing his praises. The multitudes of ministers and MKs who routinely and gleefully bury the two-state solution were now wailing with anguish and preparing to sit Shiva on their deardeparted accord with the Palestinians, so cruelly cut down in its prime.

But it is this rank hypocrisy that provides a tell tale sign that rather than wounding the Kerry initiative, as many analysts seem to believe, the EU sanctions may actually revive it. That instead of burying Kerry’s efforts - which was stillborn anyway, according to its critics - the EU move may provide it with the electric jolt that brings it to life. That rather than retaliating in a way that will scuttle the peace talks that Kerry is proposing, as some politicians have threatened, Israel will do its utmost to make sure they survive and thrive.

Not because its detractors have had a sudden change of heart, but because the Kerry initiative is suddenly being cast in a completely different light. It is the lesser of two evils, one markedly better than the other. If participating in Kerry-brokered talks is what it takes to get the EU off Israel’s back, to persuade the U.S. to prod the Europeans to cease and desist and to turn off the harsh spotlight that is suddenly highlighting and isolating the settlements – so be it.

Rather than being a nuisance with a peculiar fixation, as they have described him, Kerry is now a breath of fresh air. Instead of fiddling while the Middle East burns, Kerry in Amman is now the right man in the right place at the right time. And the very same talks that were shunned and rejected only a few hours ago seem to be just what the doctor ordered.

Previous eras of negotiations and peace talks, after all, were the golden ages of settlement expansions - under Yitzhak Rabin after Oslo, under Ehud Barak before Camp David, under Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, before and after the Gaza Disengagement. Right wing politicians who love to ridicule the peace makers as naïve, cocktail-loving optimists blind to the rejectionist realities of the Arab world around them are suddenly remembering that these were the same people who paved the way and provided the cover, even if unwittingly, for many great settlement drives in the past.

The more thoughtful settler leaders are also concerned, or at least they should be, about the long-term effects that EU sanctions can have on Israeli public opinion. Despite the knee-jerk macho outbursts of “outrage” and “indignation” at the bureaucrats of Europe “where millions of Jews were slaughtered," these leaders know, or should know, that public support for settlements, especially those outside the consensual blocs, is only skin deep and only goes so far. While the practical effect of the new EU directive may be limited in the short term, as some right-wingers have claimed, their long-term psychological influence may, in fact, be profound.

When the instinctive fury of perceived insult subsides, many Israelis will be left pondering the shattered illusion that right-wingers have been peddling by which Israel can continue expanding the settlements with impunity for as long as it wants. They will be reminded that despite settler claims to the contrary, most of them have never bought in to the equation settlements=Israel. And they will be wondering whether now is not a good time for Israel to quit, while it’s ahead.

Some Israel analysts claim that the danger posed by the EU initiative does not stem from the Israeli side, but from the Palestinians. The authorities in Ramallah will now resist Kerry’s pressures to come to talks because they will be tempted by the illusion that Europe may give them Israel’s head on a platter.

But that is true only if the Palestinians are as clumsy and clueless as their detractors seem to believe. The alternative view is that the Palestinians will view the EU threat of economic pain as a sword best left dangling over Israel’s head, to be used in times of crisis.

And even though the U.S. has signaled its displeasure with the EU move, it has not gone out of its way to denounce it, and neither have Israel’s legions of friends in Congress. Any Israeli policymaker will recognize that spurning Kerry could yield a frustrated U.S. Administration finally allowing the EU to do it their way for a change.

But whether the current projections – including this one – turn out to be right or wrong, all Middle East analyses these days are formulated on the fly, with the ground shifting under the feet of even the greatest experts. The sheer duration of Kerry’s dogged pursuit of a renewed peace process has ensured that current conditions are markedly different than they were when he started his mission, less than five months ago. Possibly, when everyone was otherwise engaged, Kerry’s prospects have also improved.

Hamas, after all, is no longer the omnipotent Egypt-backed entity that it was in April, when Kerry made his fist solo visit to Israel, but is isolated and surrounded, rather, by two implacable foes. Egypt itself is in a state of flux, but nonetheless far from the ideological enmity that characterized the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. Assad in Syria is stronger, Erdogan in Turkey is weaker, and Iran’s got a brand new face, though possibly the same plan as before.

Which leads to another Israeli conventional wisdom that may be colliding with reality as we speak. With the Arab world convulsing, Egypt imploding, Syria exploding and Jordan always teetering, this is the worst time to launch peace talks, its opponents have claimed.

But while the facts are not in dispute, a diametrically contrary conclusion is possible: in such turbulent times “when all around you are losing their heads”, the need for a positive sign of progress, for a blast of fresh air and good news, may be greater than ever. Given that both Israel and the Palestinians have proven to be islands of stability in stormy seas, perhaps it is they who can unexpectedly and counterintuitively provide a reason for some hope and optimism.

So you don’t have to support a boycott in advance in order to appreciate its potential windfall in retrospect. If it serves as a shot across the bow and as a wake up call to a complacent Israeli leadership that has fallen in love with the status quo – as they say in the Haggadah – dayenu.

And when you hear the choir of consensus scornfully scoffing, explaining why nothing will come out of it nonetheless, just remind yourself that these are the same voices who were just as convincing yesterday when they claimed that as far as settlements are concerned, there is such a thing as free lunch and Israel can have its cake and eat it too.

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