May 26 2013

Kerry’s ‘Shawarma Diplomacy’ Wins Mixed Palestinian Response

Published by at 9:47 am under Articles,Palestinian politics,US-Middle East



By Daoud Kuttab

After Nixon’s ping-pong diplomacy and Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, the Middle East seems to be getting to know John Kerry’s “shawarma diplomacy.” The US secretary of state stepped out of the usually scripted diplomatic itinerary and walked the streets of the Palestinian town of al-Bireh to enjoy a quick shawarma sandwich and some kenafeh sweets. The American diplomat took time to chat with Palestinian shopowners and has been quoted as stressing how badly the United States wants to have peace in the Middle East and how committed the Obama administration is to that cause.

Shawarma is a local street food. Large patties of meat are pressed together on a skewer and continually roasted as the person working the rotisserie cuts the freshly cooked meat, which is then wrapped in a pita stuffed with a variety of greens. Kerry, who seemed familiar with the oriental sandwich, ordered all the options except for hot sauce.

It is not difficult to understand Kerry’s gesture. He clearly wanted to encourage the reluctant Palestinians to take a leap of faith and agree to engage the Israelis. 

Kerry might have also made his move as a way of indicating that he is genuinely interested in a dialogue with Palestinians and is not coming in with any preformed ideas. Some have interpreted the visit to a local business as an indication that Kerry is trying to be a role model in supporting the local Palestinian economy and therefore encourage tourism and other investment in the Palestinian economy.

Politically, the US secretary of state is interested in the resumption of peace talks and has been making demands of both sides. Israel was asked to fully suspend settlement construction and to accept the framework of the talks. Palestinians have been asked to suspend their efforts at the UN level, especially at the International Court of Justice. Palestinians have acquiesced to Kerry’s request and have postponed all attempts to join international agencies as a separate state, despite having won statehood recognition by the UN General Assembly.

Israel has been trying to finesse the settlement issue through an undeclared agreement to do so. Israeli army radio ran a report a month ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his housing minister not to announce any new settlement activity. This well-planned news leak, however, was weakened by the announcement of over 200 new housing units in the Beit El settlement just outside Ramallah.

The issue was further exacerbated by the decision of the Israeli Defense Ministry — revealed in an Israeli court — to legalize four outposts built without official Israeli approval. The latter apparently angered Kerry so much that he took the undiplomatic act of calling the Israeli ambassador in Washington to reprimand Israel for the action.

But perhaps the biggest stumbling block has been the need to reach agreement on the basis of the talks. Palestinians demand that an agreed reference point, such as that the professed aim of the talks being to reach a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, can be extracted before face-to-face talks begin.

Differences in Israel have surfaced between chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and her prime minister on this specific issue, with the latter trying to keep it muddled, while Livni sees no problem in conceding this as the basis of the talks.

While gestures like “shawarma diplomacy” humanize the sides of the talks, Kerry’s adventure in the Palestinian streets prompted mixed reactions on Palestinian social media. Some considered it a sign of failure, while others chided Kerry for eating kenafeh, which is a sweet traditionally enjoyed in celebration of success. Others commented that they hoped Kerry doesn’t lose interest in the peace process as others have done before him.

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