While the peace talks aren’t officially over yet, recent developments indicate that the current US-brokered efforts to forge a final-status agreement — or interim, framework, or any other kind of agreement — have failed. For negotiations to even continue would take a miracle.
Thus, both the Israelis and the Palestinians are gearing up to point fingers at the other side for the failure of yet another round of discussions. Let the blame games begin!
Determining why this round of talks failed is not merely a theoretical question or the purview of historians; it could have far-reaching implications for Israel’s standing in the world.
If Jerusalem is seen as the party primarily responsible for the breakdown of talks, the international community, fed up with the lingering conflict, will likely intensify efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically, while enhancing the Palestinians’ standing.
The United Nations General Assembly already recognized Palestine as a non-member state in 2012, and a year earlier UNESCO accepted Palestine as a fully fledged member.
If and when the current talks are formally declared to have broken down, the Palestinians will apply for membership in 63 international agencies and UN bodies, and it seems more than likely that their bid will be overwhelmingly successful.
That may not change much on the ground, but it will enhance the Palestinians’ ability to harm Israel — be it by launching war-crime lawsuits in the International Criminal Court, or by prompting a host of anti-Israel resolutions from the World Health Organization or the UN World Food Program.
The indefatigable US Secretary of State John Kerry, who invested so much time and effort in trying to forge an agreement, and endured much ridicule and scorn along the way, will probably turn his attention elsewhere. Disillusioned by Israel’s behavior during the last eight months — including the unprecedented attacks by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon — the US might also somewhat cool its support of Israel in the diplomatic arena.
Israel’s relations with the European Union could also suffer. “If the talks are wrecked as a result of an Israeli settlement announcement, then the blame will be put squarely on Israel’s doorstep,” the EU’s ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, said earlier this year. If Israel’s actions result in the talks’ breakdown, he predicted, “naturally and logically [Israel] will be to blame.”
So which action exactly was it that killed the talks? Was it Israel’s ongoing settlement activity and the failure to release Palestinian prisoners? Or was it the Palestinians’ resumption of unilateral steps toward statehood?
The Palestinians say that Israel’s failure to proceed with the fourth and final planned release of Palestinian security prisoners, scheduled for March 29, gave them a signal to go ahead and file application to 15 international treaties and conventions. Back in July 2013, they had only agreed to hold off on joining UN bodies in exchange for an Israeli commitment to release 104 prisoners, they argue.
“Since Israel failed to release the last group of prisoners, the State of Palestine is no longer obliged to postpone its rights to accede to multilateral treaties and conventions,” the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department said in a press release this week. Negotiations with Israel are not affected by that move and could continue until the end of April, the press release stated.
Applying to these international treaties “has nothing to do with negotiations or the reaching of an agreement,” the Palestinians argued. “On the other hand, Israeli actions, including unrelenting settlement construction during this entire process, have undermined US and international efforts.”
The Israelis do not accept that reasoning. The fact that Jerusalem was a few days late in freeing the Palestinian prisoners does not justify an irreversible move that could change the legal and diplomatic context of negotiations between the parties, according to sources close to the negotiations.
On Friday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid fired an opening salvo in what will likely be a long battle in the court of public opinion, writing on Facebook that a new list of demands by the Palestinians, preconditions for resuming talks, seem like a “deliberate provocation aimed at blowing up the talks.”
Israel, on the other hand, did not intend to cancel the prisoner release, but merely sought to ascertain that it would guarantee the continuation of sustained and uninterrupted talks, according to officials. Furthermore, persistent Palestinian threats to head to the UN as soon as the initial nine-month period slated for negotiations elapsed, “would make it very difficult for us to release prisoners,” well-placed Israeli sources said.
Jerusalem was actually ready to go ahead with the fourth round of releases, yet the PA demanded it include Arab Israelis, a demand Israel rejected. And while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given his OK for a complicated trilateral agreement that would salvage the negotiations, the Palestinians went ahead with their UN applications, effectively torpedoing the process, these Israeli sources argue.
Both the Palestinians’ insistence on Israeli Arabs and the refusal to commit to extend the talks led Israel to delay the prisoner release, the sources added. If the Palestinians are really interested in negotiations, Israel wonders, why would they take unilateral steps to change their status and attack Israel in international bodies?
The Palestinians claim that Kerry promised the release of Israeli Arabs; the Israelis assert they never committed to such a move. So either the Palestinians are lying, or Kerry is to blame for promising one side something without ensuring that the other side was willing to deliver. Israelis and Palestinians, though, are pointing fingers at each other.
And what does the outside world say? The Americans, for now, hold both parties equally responsible, at least publicly. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that Israel’s delay in the release of prisoners “creates challenges,” but the State Department’s Marie Harf clarified later that “both sides took unhelpful steps. The Israelis certainly did, as did the Palestinians… But we are not putting the blame on any one side here. Both sides have done some unhelpful things and we think both sides need to make some tough choices.”
When Netanyahu, back in July 2013, agreed to release Palestinians incarcerated for brutally murdering Israelis — as a concession to restart the talks — he may have done so in the hope that this would help him in the blame game that would surely follow the talks’ likely collapse.
He repeatedly stressed his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — likely thinking that they would refuse — and probably hoped to showcase their ostensible unwillingness to arrive at a genuine peace.
“We took painful steps just to get them to the table, but they will not even recognize our right to exist here,” Netanyahu could have been planning to say as soon as the world started looking for the reason why the peace process, again, went nowhere.
But the way things played out, the international community seems disinclined to buy into this narrative. If even the US holds both sides equally responsible, it can be assumed that the rest of the world will, as the EU ambassador put it, place the blame “squarely on Israel’s doorstep.”