American officials directly involved in the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the last nine months gave a leading Israeli columnist a withering assessment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the negotiations, indicated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has completely given up on the prospect of a negotiated solution, and warned Israel that the Palestinians will achieve statehood come what may — either via international organizations or through violence.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist from Israel’s best-selling daily Yedioth Aharonoth, the officials highlighted Netanyahu’s ongoing settlement construction as the issue “largely to blame” for the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s July 2013-April 2014 effort to broker a permanent peace accord.
They made plain that US President Barack Obama had been prepared to release spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard to salvage the talks. And they warned that “the world will not keep tolerating the Israeli occupation.”
Barnea, who described his conversations with the American officials as “the closest thing to an official American version of what happened” in the talks, said the secretary is now deciding whether to wait a few months and try to renew the negotiating effort or to publicize the US’s suggested principles of an agreement.
Detailing how the US sought to solve disputes over the core issues of a two-state solution, Barnea wrote on Friday that, “Using advanced software, the Americans drew a border outline in the West Bank that gives Israel sovereignty over some 80 percent of the settlers that live there today. The remaining 20 percent were meant to evacuate. In Jerusalem, the proposed border is based on Bill Clinton’s plan — Jewish neighborhoods to Israel, Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians.”
He quoted the Americans saying that while the Israeli government made no response to the American plan, and also failed to draw its own border outline, Abbas agreed to the US-suggested border outline.
The Americans said they had intended to begin the nine-month negotiating period with an Israeli announcement of a settlement freeze. But this proved impossible, an American official was quoted saying, “because of the current makeup of the Israeli government, so we gave up… We didn’t realize [that] continuing construction allowed ministers in [Netanyahu's] government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks. There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth: the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.
“At this point, it’s very hard to see how the negotiations could be renewed, let alone lead to an agreement,” the Americans continued. “Towards the end, Abbas demanded a three-month freeze on settlement construction. His working assumption was that if an accord is reached, Israel could build along the new border as it pleases. But the Israelis said no.”
The Americans told Barnea that, in contrast to the hitherto unclear reports of whether the US was prepared to release American-Israeli spy Pollard to salvage the talks from collapse in recent weeks, Obama was willing “to prepare for Jonathan Pollard’s release. Such a move wouldn’t have helped his popularity in the American security system… There was a massive effort on our part to pull the wagon out of the deep quicksand it was stuck in. But the reality here hit us hard. Neither side had a sense of urgency. Kerry was the only one who felt a sense of urgency, and that was not enough.”
One bitter American official told Barnea, “I guess we need another intifada to create the circumstances that would allow progress.”
A third intifada, the Americans made clear, “would be a tragedy. The Jewish people are supposed to be smart; it is true that they’re also considered a stubborn nation. You’re supposed to know how to read the map: In the 21st century, the world will not keep tolerating the Israeli occupation. The occupation threatens Israel’s status in the world and threatens Israel as a Jewish state.”
Pressed by Barnea on perceived international hypocrisy over Israel’s presence in the West Bank, when the world “closes its eyes to China’s takeover of Tibet, it stutters at what Russia’s doing to Ukraine,” the Americans were quoted as responding: “Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution. Its prosperity depends on the way it is viewed by the international community.”
The American officials described to Barnea what they called Abbas’s loss of trust in the talks and in Netanyahu, and how his skepticism hardened as settlement-building continued, and as Israel demanded complete security control over the territories. From Abbas’s point of view, the Americans told Barnea, the sense was “that nothing was going to change on the security front. Israel was not willing to agree to time frames; its control of the West Bank would continue forever. Abbas reached the conclusion that there was nothing for him in such an agreement. He’s 79 years old. He has reached the last chapter of his life. He’s tired. He was willing to give the process one final chance, but found, according to him, that he has no partner on the Israeli side. His legacy won’t include a peace agreement with Israel.
“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry. He had a lingering serious cold. ‘I’m under a lot of pressure,’ he complained. ‘I’m sick of this.’ He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally — not in writing. Abbas refused.”
Abbas, the officials told Barnea, had made concessions — in accepting that “Palestine” would be demilitarized; in agreeing to the US border outline that would see 80% of settlers coming under Israeli sovereignty, and in agreeing for Israel to retain control of sensitive security areas such as the Jordan Valley for five years.
“He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness,” the Americans said. “‘Israel won’t be flooded with refugees,’ he promised.”
In a rare attribution of some blame to Abbas, the Americans said they “couldn’t understand why it bothered him so much” to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But here too, ultimately, the Americans were empathetic to Abbas: “The Palestinians came to the conclusion that Israel was pulling a nasty trick on them. They suspected there was an effort to get from them approval of the Zionist narrative.”
The final straw for Abbas was the late March announcement by Uri Ariel’s Housing and Construction Ministry of building tenders for more than 700 housing units in Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood. At that point, the Americans told Barnea, Abbas “lost interest. He turned to the reconciliation talks with Hamas and to the question of who would inherit his mantle.”
The Americans warned that, with the talks over, Israel might be facing “quite a problem. As of now, nothing is stopping the Palestinians from turning to the international community. The Palestinians are tired of the status quo. They will get their state in the end — whether through violence or by turning to international organizations.”
They also warned that if, as announced, Israel seeks “to impose economic sanctions on the Palestinians, it could boomerang. The West Bank economy will collapse, and then Abbas will say ‘I don’t want this anymore. Take this from me.’ There’s great potential for deterioration here, which could end with the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli soldiers will have to administer the lives of 2.5 million Palestinians, to their mothers’ chagrin. The donating countries will stop paying up, and the bill of $3 billion a year will have to be paid by your Finance Ministry.”
Some of the warnings delivered by the Americans reflected a similar tone to that expressed by Obama in an interview he gave shortly before his last meeting with Netanyahu at the White House in March.
Israel can expect to face international isolation and possible sanctions from countries and companies across the world if Netanyahu fails to endorse a framework agreement with the Palestinians, Obama cautioned in an interview with Bloomberg at the time. If Netanyahu “does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach,” Obama said then. “There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” he said.
The president went on to condemn Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank, and said that though his allegiance to the Jewish state was permanent, building settlements across the Green Line was counterproductive and would make it extremely difficult for the US to defend Israel from painful repercussions in the international community. “If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama warned.