Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: British Foreign Secretary William Hague says the US should fix the Middle East. My second cousin who works at the US State Department says that’s like saying the front of the Dodge pick-up is smashed so it needs a paint job to get it fixed. Doesn’t work like that in real life, he adds. And that’s coming from a guy whose boss rates Hague as nice but not the highest-grade ore – which is about how most people over at Foggy Bottom rate the British Foreign Office as a whole these days.
Imagine, Mr Hague is really talking about the US taking what he calls ‘a decisive lead’ in sorting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What he is missing, though, is that in US foreign policy there’s no such thing as a decisive lead. Take the lead by all means but don’t anticipate decisiveness until the lid’s off the can and you can see the beans. We’ve just seen that with Secretary of State Clinton’s part in the Gaza crisis. She could have come up with Hague’s ‘decisive lead’ plan earlier, but the killing and beheading of the serpent had not yet been done. When Mrs Clinton sensed it had happened, she went in and pulled the two sides together.
Mr Hague, my second cousin says, in the spirit of that Special Relationship, should only take the lead when he knows for certain the guys behind him won’t shoot him in the back. Remember the Balkans in the ’90s, he says. You sent in your ex-Foreign Office boss, Lord Carrington, before the lid was off. We got our man and David Owen in when the beans could be seen – when everyone was ready to eat. We did the deal. So think how complex these peace fixes get before you get yourself knuckled into making watch-my-lips statements on some cute morning TV show.
And it’s made even more complicated by the arrival in New York of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, to ask the UN for non-member observer status for Palestine.
Last week you were making it clear you weren’t sure how to vote on this one. You real or something? Of course you knew.
The US will use its veto. The Israelis say ‘no’ to observer status because it theoretically breaches the 1993 Oslo Accords and it would give Palestine access to the International Criminal Court. Wouldn’t they just love to send a few Israeli addresses to the Hague courtroom? That is the best part of meaningless because such UN recognition would write off a number of previously agreed Palestinian status issues.
But Abbas’s appearance on the East River does remind us that the big issue of the past couple of weeks was about Gaza over which the Palestinian Authority had no control whatsoever. Most people never remember to include Abbas and his Ramallah henchmen in any discussion about Israel anyway. He rates, I’m afraid to say, with the British. No one bothers to memorise their mobile numbers.
Where does that leave Hague’s tacit claim, though perfectly nicely put, that the US is the only dealer in town. Not even Obama has the power nor the inclination to whisper rien ne va plus because neither he, nor anyone else, has a diplomatic ball to spin that would bring up any number in that irresolvable confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis.
Hague ought to understand that the dispute cannot be fixed; that settlements increasingly make the two state system mostly impossible and that no one in the world could guarantee an agreement.
And when Hague says fix it, he should know that the real job is to fix the whole Middle East. Where to start?
Egypt? Is Mursi the real thing – the Ayatollah come to Cairo town? Stop the multi-billion donations from Washington? No way. Mursi’s Gaza pull-off will keep him in aid shackles for the rest of his time.
Jordan? King Abdullah has promised something close enough to democracy. But can he deliver enough to satisfy a highly educated middle class including a third of the population being Palestinians? Probably not. Jordan’s broke. America sees Jordan as an ally, especially as it has a long border with Syria and has to handle and keep the lid on refugees – which is why US troops could soon be in there.
The Gulf – The Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia etc? Strangers to democracy? US should walk away? Forget it. Where else would America park its 5th Fleet that patrols the whole region from Iranian international waters south to Kenya and has done since 1995? And who has the oil?
Syria? A revolution by blood-thirsty rebels who will cut and thrust to the death among themselves once Al Assad is toppled. America leaves that to Saudi Arabia and Qatar just as it did in Libya. A touch of help here and there – especially ironic, as my second cousin says, but arm’s length is the nearest to get until…? Right! Until the lid’s off the can.
Iraq? Still a treacherous muddle of revenge and mistrust and all in the political and Shia versus Sunni detritus left by the Americans
Iran? The safe option remains economic sanctions but what happens when or if the Iranians tick the last nuclear warhead test box? Israel will do it. It will have to do so with American help and it will get that assistance – air-to-air refueling, drone Intelligence support, etc.
So when Mr Hague says of the Israel-Palestine conflict that the world is coming to the ‘final chance’, he is missing the point that in the political history of the region – an entirely 20th century phenomenon – there never is a final chance. That part of the globe does not have a last chance saloon. Mrs Clinton knows that. Mr Hague should, but does he? Probably not. So she should give him a spanking for it. He might like it.