WASHINGTON — While delivering scathing condemnations of the behavior of both sides, Washington’s chief negotiator in the recent Israeli-Palestinian talks denied Thursday that the peace process was over.
In his most revealing comments since the breakdown of talks, former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk recounted Thursday evening how, after six months of productive direct negotiations, Palestinian leaders “shut down” and singled out settlement activity as a major — but not the sole — factor.
“We have passed the nine-month marker for these negotiations, and for the time being the talks have been suspended,” Indyk said, addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Weinberg Founders Conference in Washington DC. “Some have said this process is over. But that is not correct. As my little story testifies. As you all know well — in the Middle East, it’s never over.”
Indyk’s remarks were his most expansive public comments following the breakdown of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority late last month.
Assessing the conditions that led to the stalled talks, Indyk cited a lack of a sense of urgency among Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “are committed to achieving a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through peaceful means,” Indyk explained, but added that “one problem that revealed itself in these past nine months is that the parties, although both showing flexibility in the negotiations, do not feel the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace.”
“It is easier for the Palestinians to sign conventions and appeal to international bodies in their supposed pursuit of ‘justice’ and their ‘rights,’ a process which by definition requires no compromise,” Indyk criticized. “It is easier for Israeli politicians to avoid tension in the governing coalition and for the Israeli people to maintain the current comfortable status quo.”
“It is safe to say that if we the US are the only party that has a sense of urgency, these negotiations will not succeed,” he added.
The US ambassador criticized steps taken by both sides as contributing to the breakdown of talks.
“The fact is both the Israelis and Palestinians missed opportunities, and took steps that undermined the process,” Indyk complained. “We have spoken publicly about unhelpful Israeli steps that combined to undermine the negotiations. But it is important to be clear: We view steps the Palestinians took during the negotiations as unhelpful too. Signing accession letters to 15 international treaties at the very moment when we were attempting to secure the release of the fourth tranche of prisoners was particularly counterproductive. And the final step that led to the suspension of the negotiations at the end of April was the announcement of a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement while we were working intensively on an effort to extend the negotiations.”
Indyk also called Israel out for its continued “settlement activity.”
“The settlement movement on the other hand may well drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality,” Indyk warned.
Later, in a Q&A session, Indyk expanded on his argument, saying that settlement activity had “sabotaged negotiations” and now represented “a roadblock to resumption of negotiations.
“The expansion of settlements on land that the Palestinians believe is supposed to be part of their state and the prevention of their ability to build on the same land is a very problematic situation in the resolution of this conflict,” he added.
In addition, Indyk argued that public sentiment on both sides of the conflict presented a serious obstacle to negotiations. He said that the Americans had tried to get Palestinian and Israeli leaders to “engage in synchronized positive messaging to their publics,” but to no avail.
The veteran ambassador revealed that for the first six months after both sides agreed to resume negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians had engaged in direct bilateral talks, with the American interlocutors largely serving as “silent observers.”
“During those six months all of the core issues were discussed and it was possible to delineate where the gaps were at all of those core issues,” Indyk recounted. At that point, he said, “it became natural” for the US to meet with each side individually to work out arrangements.
For two months, the Americans met with the Israelis for “very intensive negotiations” in which top officials including Netanyahu and Secretary of State John Kerry held dozens of conversations over secure calls, video conferences and direct meetings.
According to Indyk, “it was visibly difficult” for Netanyahu but “he moved, he showed flexibility.”
“I think we had him in the zone,” Indyk recalled. At the same time, he said, “The Palestinians were content to sit back and watch the show as a spectator sport. It was clear that there was a good deal of tension between the US and Israel and they were content during that time.”
But during that same period, Indyk said, “Abu Mazen shut down.”
Although Indyk acknowledged that “settlements were a big factor,” the ambassador also noted that rivalries over the successor to the 79-year-old Palestinian president were also a big factor.
“I think he came to the conclusion that he didn’t have a reliable partner for the kind of two state solution he was looking for,” Indyk assessed. “He shifted toward looking at his legacy and his succession.”
The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation that ultimately led to the suspension of talks, said Indyk, had little to do with the peace process at all. Instead, he argued, Abbas was concerned that if he resigned without holding elections, his successor as head of the Palestinian Legislative Council would be a Hamas member. By fostering reconciliation, Indyk argued, Abbas hoped to change that dynamic and ensure that his successor would be a more palatable — and pro-Fatah — candidate.
Another gap that Indyk described as “very wide” was the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “Netanyahu says it’s foundational and Abbas says he will not discuss it,” Indyk revealed, while adding that America has been consistent in its support for Israel as a Jewish state.