After half-a-dozen trips to the Middle East, during which he had to do lots of arm-twisting, US Secretary of State John Kerry finally announced the resumption of direct final status negotiations between Israel and Palestinians late last month. Before the much-hailed “breakthrough,” Kerry’s indefatigable shuttle diplomacy was greeted with a lot of skepticism — almost nobody believed he would actually succeed in bringing the two sides to a table — but once they agreed to talk, he earned lots of applause from the world community.
One after another, world leaders congratulated Kerry on his courage, his diplomatic skills and his unwavering belief that if only he willed it, the negotiations were no dream. But as the talks arrive in Jerusalem this week — the first substantial round is slated to take place Wednesday at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, followed by another meeting in Jericho at a yet-unspecified time — one gets the impression that both sides are playing Kerry for a sap.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas only agreed to return to the negotiating table after they realized they could no longer refuse. Kerry’s pressure was too great for them to resist; he’d been here six times, for goodness’ sake. They couldn’t keep saying no and risk alienating the administration. But neither of them gave in easily; they only caved when they were given a handsome incentive. If I have to negotiate with a partner I don’t trust, both Abbas and Netanyahu must have said to themselves, I might as well come out with some goodies.
Both men have to pay a political price at home for the resumption of talks — each leader’s constituency is opposed to negotiations — and therefore they could only dare to say yes to Kerry if they were delivering something to their people. For all the secretary’s declared confidence that he can broker an end to a conflict unresolved for decades in the space of nine months, Netanyahu and Abbas know full well that a final status agreement is thoroughly implausible.
Therefore, Abbas made the Palestinians’ participation in the peace talks contingent on Israel releasing 104 terrorists who have been sitting in Israeli prisons since before the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords. Very few things make the Palestinian public as happy as the welcoming home of their “heroes.” And Netanyahu, in return for the kind gesture, secured American understanding of his need to build 1,200 new homes beyond the Green Line — in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs.
Sunday’s announcement to this effect by Construction Minister Uri Ariel caused a little controversy, with Palestinian leaders saying the move showed Israel “wasn’t serious about negotiations,” and half-seriously threatening to abandon the talks. News Monday of another 900 homes to be built in East Jerusalem brought further Palestinian complaints. But few really believe the Palestinians will stay away on Wednesday. Netanyahu had refused Abbas’s demand for a settlement freeze, so further construction was inevitable. The Palestinians can hardly declare it a deal-breaker; that would set them up for failure in the post-negotiation blame game.
Speaking to journalists on Thursday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the US does not “accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.” Again, this was a pro forma protest, as was underlined when she added that Kerry “believes both of the negotiating teams are at the table in good faith and are committed to working together to make progress.”
So everyone is, if not exactly happy, then at least not defeated. For now. Kerry has his resumed peace talks, triumphantly orchestrated in defiance of two recalcitrant leaders and a pessimistic international community. Netanyahu was able to calm the pro-settler elements in his coalition (and within his own party), who would have tried to oust him, or worse, had he dared to agree to another settlement freeze. And Abbas got the release of the prisoners.
Kerry doubtless hopes the prisoner releases and settlement plans will provide Netanyahu and Abbas with enough political breathing space to get down to substantive negotiations. If that strategy works out, he’ll deserve all the accolades.
But if, as precedent and the yawning gulf between the sides unfortunately suggest is more likely, the talks fail, and Abbas and Netanyahu prove unwilling to make the concessions necessary for an agreement, critics will argue that Kerry will not merely have wasted his and everybody else’s time. He will have pressured Israel into releasing murderers, at the expense of its judicial integrity and to the anguish of their victims’ loved ones. He will have forced Abbas to swallow the building of more settlement homes. And by insisting that a deal is there to be done, and failing to broker it, he will have risked igniting new frustrations and grievances, with unpredictable consequences.
Perhaps the secretary will be vindicated. Perhaps next summer, he’ll be smiling broadly at a White House ceremony as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders put their names to a historic end-of-conflict peace agreement. Far more likely, though, that next fall, Abbas will be speaking at the UN, accusing Israel of having doomed the talks, and seeking endorsement of an independent Palestine. And Israel, short on friends, will be seeking to convince the US to block that move, insisting that it genuinely sought an accord but found Abbas unforthcoming.