The 2013-14 effort at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was doomed to fail because of the unrealistic goals set by the United States at its inception, according to a new Israeli insider account. And the inevitable collapse was expedited by grave mistakes made during the negotiations by their American sponsors, and especially by secretary of state John Kerry, veteran Israeli peace negotiator Michael Herzog writes.
In a lengthy article published this week, Herzog says Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington all contributed to the breakdown of negotiations in April 2014. “All parties made mistakes, each exacerbating the others’ and contributing to a negative dynamic.”
But he apportions devastating blame to Kerry, who initiated and headed the talks. He writes that Kerry “definitely does not deserve the slander directed at him by some Israelis,” but nonetheless highlights Kerry’s over-confidence and lack of sensitivity, says Kerry caused confusion from the start, cites instances where Kerry misrepresented Israel’s positions to the Palestinians, and suggests the US team led by the former secretary might have deliberately misled the parties.
After insistently launching negotiations with the unattainable goal of reaching a final-status agreement in less than a year, Kerry then mismanaged the talks as they proceeded, charges Herzog, who was a member of the Israeli negotiating team headed by then-justice minister Tzipi Livni. (Herzog, brother of Labor leader Isaac and son of former president Chaim, is a retired brigadier-general who formerly headed the IDF’s strategic planning division and served as chief of staff to the defense minister; he stresses that he has never been politically affiliated.)
Kerry failed to fully understand “the psychology of the parties or the delicate nuances of their relations,” writes Herzog, who has participated in most of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, Syrians, and Jordanians since 1993.
“At times he appeared more eager than they were, pushed them beyond their limits, set unrealistic goals and timeframes, and shouldered some burdens better left alone or to the parties — in the belief that his own powers of personal persuasion could overcome any obstacle.”
For instance, the former secretary of state misinformed Ramallah about Israel’s firm opposition to releasing Palestinian security prisoners, one of the key misunderstandings that led to the talks’ breakdown, according to Herzog.
Kerry also insisted on merging the negotiations he presided over publicly with a “back channel” track, destroying tangible progress that had been quietly made between the sides.
A waste of time and energy
“Reaching a deal in nine months was clearly unrealistic, given the very significant gaps and mistrust between the parties. This should have been realized from the outset,” Herzog writes in The American Interest magazine in an article titled “Inside the Black Box of Israeli-Palestinian Talks.”
And yet, Kerry stuck to the “titanic goal” of reaching agreement on all core issues within this framework. “The result was a waste of precious time and energy in the first phase of talks.” Rather, the parties should have first tried to agree on guidelines for negotiating and resolving the core issues, according to Herzog.
Kerry set ground rules for the talks with both parties separately, which became a source of serious confusion and misunderstanding, eventually causing the process to collapse, Herzog charges.
Before agreeing to enter negotiations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that Israel release a number of Palestinian security prisoners, among them several Arab-Israelis. Jerusalem told the Americans that it refused to free Israeli citizens convicted by its own courts. But the Israeli side was “soon surprised to find out that Kerry had nonetheless promised this to Abbas, later claiming a misunderstanding with Israel,” according to Herzog.
Furthermore, Kerry’s ground rules allowed Israel to determine the terms of the prisoners’ release. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following the advice of his security chiefs, thus delayed the release of prisoners likely to return to terrorism to the fourth and last round. He also insisted that 10 out of the total of 108 prisoners be expelled to Gaza, Jordan or elsewhere and not be allowed to return to the West Bank.
“Yet the Palestinians claimed there was an agreement between Abbas and Kerry that all prisoners would be released ‘to their homes’ — a claim later affirmed to us by the US team,” Herzog writes. “One of Kerry’s aides apologetically explained that in his meeting with Abbas, ‘the Secretary was not aware of this nuance.’”
Jerusalem’s eventual refusal to release the last batch of prisoners at the planned date led Abbas on April 1, 2014, to sign documents to join 15 international bodies, violating a commitment not to take unilateral steps to advance the bid to have “Palestine” recognized as a state. Israel reacted by reissuing tenders for 708 housing units in East Jerusalem, a move which critics — including Kerry — inaccurately pinpointed for the talks’ breakdown.
Netanyahu had never promised to freeze settlement construction for the duration of the talks, Herzog notes. In fact, the Israelis had told Kerry they would announce construction of 1,200-1,500 housing units beyond the Green Line to coincide with every phase of prisoner releases.
“Kerry was careful not to provide a formal stamp of approval to a policy that the US government officially objected to, but in reality he went along given the context of conflict-ending negotiations,” Herzog wrote. “He conveyed the picture to the Palestinian side; however, it is not clear what exact language and tone he used.”
Of the US handling of the talks, Herzog writes that whenever Israelis or Palestinians were presented by an American negotiator with a certain position, neither side knew whether this position represented Washington or the other side. The Americans might have sowed confusion deliberately to “allow the US side more maneuvering space between the parties,” he suggests, “but instead each developed suspicions that the US side did not necessarily share identical content with both parties.”
Particularly detrimental to the process, he goes on, was Kerry’s insistence on launching the talks in parallel to existing back channel negotiations that were well underway and promised to yield substantive results.
Herzog describes informal talks conducted discreetly by private individuals who acted on behalf of their respective leaders. Before Kerry publicly launched his talks between the two sides — headed by Livni and Saeb Erekat, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization — US president Barack Obama had called the secret back channel “the only game in town.”
But Kerry pushed for a front channel of negotiations. “His position triggered a debate within the Obama Administration: Should it invest political capital in a parallel public channel, which many thought carried low chances of success, or should it just wait and give the back channel a chance? Kerry insisted and had his way,” Herzog writes.
From July to December 2013, the two tracks ran parallel to each other. “What emerged was a predictable competition. As expected, once participants in the public channel became aware of the back channel and its contents, they objected to being a side-show or serving as cover,” Herzog recalls.
“With time, I formed the impression that Kerry quietly fostered the competition, as if splitting his investment and waiting to see which of the tracks would yield more. I warned him that this approach would ultimately destroy the unprecedented progress made over more than two years of meticulous efforts. It did.”
Abandoning the back channel for the public one “was a major mistake,” Herzog judges.
In March 2014, as the nine months allotted for the talks neared their conclusion, the Israeli negotiators sought to directly engage with their Palestinian counterparts to salvage the faltering process. They were shocked to discover that the Americans had apparently given false information to the Palestinians about an upcoming vote in Israel’s cabinet.
“While comparing notes, we were told by the Palestinians how on nine separate occasions in recent days the US side had given them specific hours at which Israel’s cabinet would meet to vote on the prisoner release,” Herzog recalled. “Our jaws dropped. Nobody on our side ever determined a specific hour for the cabinet meeting… To this day, I am bewildered by this episode.”
Still, Herzog allows, despite the many missteps that doomed the talks, Kerry deserves praise “for his commitment, determination, and intelligence, and for his indispensable role in propelling the process.”
Writes Herzog: “He definitely does not deserve the slander directed at him by some Israelis. His mission was unenviable in that he was struggling to negotiate simultaneously with Israelis, Palestinians, and the White House.”
The framework document
Efforts to save the talks eventually resulted in a framework document, meant to enshrine whatever progress had been made in discussing the core issues. Herzog does not divulge the document’s exact terms but provides a glimpse into how far each side was willing to go.
Regarding security arrangements, the Palestinians, for instance, were willing to accept an Israeli military presence in parts of the West Bank for five years, which was to be followed by an indefinite deployment of foreign forces. Israel rejected that, requiring a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. “Netanyahu thought in terms of decades,” according to Herzog.
“Ultimately, the U.S. and Israeli sides agreed that the timeframe should be based on specific criteria. The debate over which criteria and who would judge them was never fully resolved in this phase,” he reports.
While rejecting the Palestinians’ demand for a “right of return” for refugees, Israel and the US considered allowing “admitting some Palestinians to Israel on an individual, humanitarian basis and at Israel’s sole discretion.”
Washington also appeared positively disposed to Jerusalem’s request that a peace deal acknowledge the suffering of Jews who fled Arab countries after the State of Israel was founded, and to create a mechanism for compensation.
The issue of Jerusalem remained entirely unresolved, Herzog writes, in part because Ramallah insisted, with American approval, to have Israel explicitly recognize a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.