It ain’t over til Kerry sings

It ain’t over til Kerry sings

Though reports coming out of the Israeli-Palestinian talks paint a grim picture, there may be some reason for hope

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
Saeb Erekat (left), with John Kerry (center), and Tzipi Livni at a July 2013 press conference in Washington, DC, relaunching peace talks. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

The words “explosion” and “crisis” were used countless times this week by Israeli and Palestinian media to describe the state of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Endless spin has been used in the Middle East in connection with the talks. Reports upon reports, declarations and interviews with Israeli officials (like Meretz head Zehava Galon, though it’s unclear why she, of all the pillars of the peace camp, chose to run to the tell the press about secret American moves happening behind closed doors), next to idle threats by senior Palestinians about quitting.

Yet the simple fact is that further talks were held this week. What’s more, in stark contrast to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ claims that the negotiations were approaching an explosion, several more meetings have already been set for the future.

To the credit of the negotiators, the talks are still largely shrouded in secrecy. Still, the frequency of leaks recently could point to one of two conclusions: one — there is real headway being made, causing the two sides to sweat about having to actually cut a deal; two — the talks are stalled and there is a genuine crisis.

The natural inclination is to suspect the latter is true. Only a couple of days ago, senior Israeli officials leaked that the Palestinians had hardened their stance, Abbas announced that the talks were bearing no tangible results, the Palestinians said that this week’s meeting was a “shouting match” and the conversation ended in an “explosion,” and Saeb Erekat, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, reportedly announced his resignation.

It is entirely possible that this is an accurate depiction. But away from the media, there are indications that something more positive is developing.

There is certainly a feeling on the Palestinian side that the Israeli government is doing everything it can to force the PA to walk away from the table. Israel’s decision to announce building plans in the settlements following last month’s latest release of Palestinian prisoners is interpreted by the Palestinians as a slap in Mahmoud Abbas’s face.

True, the July 19 agreement between the two sides said nothing about halting construction at settlements, only about the release of 104 prisoners in exchange for a Palestinian commitment to stop turning to the UN. But the Palestinians didn’t expect public announcements — almost boasting — by Netanyahu about building, in a fashion that has led to Hamas accusations that Abbas actually agreed to settlement building in exchange for the release of prisoners. Secretary of State John Kerry, in his incendiary TV interview on Thursday, was forced to defend Abbas and make plain that there was no such agreement.

The Palestinian suspicions are not entirely imaginary. The perception is that someone on the Israeli side is trying to embarrass Abbas and — since the release of the latest 26 prisoners — to publicize at every opportunity the decision to build more apartments in the West Bank, in a way that would lead to a collapse of the talks. The Palestinian leadership is being blamed again for harming the interests of its people, and this is the source of the massive internal Palestinian anger toward PA officials.

Not to mention the source of Erekat’s spin.

Because of his position, the head of the Palestinian negotiating team is seen as the main address for criticism, so he — or his staff — took the trouble to leak his so-called resignation to the press, “in light of the continued Israeli building in the settlements.” Erekat wanted to tell the Palestinian public, I’m not guilty.

And here, a word should be said about the media. Erekat has resigned countless times in the past, and inevitably, “the president did not accept the resignation.” And yet, for some Israeli and Palestinian journalists, this was a reason to talk about a “virtual crisis,” even though they knew this wasn’t an actual resignation. If anyone is still wondering, Erekat participated in the latest talks this week.

In addition, Erekat’s opponents in the PA (who are not on the negotiating team) are not hesitating to criticize him, even leaking details about the talks, in order to embarrass him in front of Kerry.

On top of this, Abbas does not have faith in Netanyahu, and is preparing for a possible collapse of the talks. In a conversation with the Fatah leadership on Sunday, Abbas said that the negotiations had achieved nothing on the ground — even though this is not accurate, to say the very least. It is possible that he was seeking to dampen the criticism against him and to prepare the ground for failure.

Netanyahu does the same when he hints at his intention to propose a “Plan B” if and when the talks fail.

Netanyahu’s Plan B, the Palestinians suspect, will be presented at the end of April — when the nine months allocated for the talks run out — and will include a proposal for a Palestinian state with temporary borders, in Areas A, B, and parts of C, and several villages considered part of East Jerusalem (such as Anata and Kfar Ekev). This could be offered with the hope that the Palestinian side will say no to the proposal, and the PA will be blamed for torpedoing the talks.

But it is not at all certain that this is the way things will turn out.
The Palestinians would not be the ones accused internationally of obstructing negotiations when the talks are terminated in April, and it is doubtful that Netanyahu, given his current coalition with Avigdor Liberman, would be able to present an outline of a Palestinian state of any kind, even with provisional borders.

Again, all the reports suggest that the talks are about to fail. But if we do away with the background noise and mutual recriminations for one moment, we might discover some surprises.

Kerry decided to extend his stay in the region in order to make sure that neither of the “children” intends to smash the dishes.

And the secretary of state said Thursday that “important progress had been achieved.” in the latest contacts. “What happened over the past day opened the door to some possibilities, and it is conceivable they could be completed during the talks between the two sides,” Kerry said in a joint press conference Thursday with the Jordanian foreign minister.

In addition, according to the testimony of senior Israelis, Palestinians and Americans involved in the talks, the Palestinian negotiating team has surprised in its seriousness and in its positive approach.

Is this enough for an agreement? It may not be. Even if the Palestinians are stepping up — and that’s quite an “if” — they need an Israeli partner, and it is not at all clear how serious a partner wants or can afford to be.

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