‘Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months…. When somebody tells you that Israelis and Palestinians cannot find common ground or address the issues that divide them, don’t believe them.” — US Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by chief negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, at the State Department on July 30, 2013.
For all of Secretary Kerry’s unfathomable optimism eight months ago, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had been going nowhere for months before they crashed spectacularly this week.
The Palestinians halted direct talks with the Israelis way back in November, in protest at ongoing Israeli settlement construction. (Israel would argue legalistically that, according to the understandings that governed the resumed peace effort, it was not required to limit West Bank building.) The Palestinians then torpedoed Kerry’s efforts to draft a document setting out the “principles of final status,” under which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was prepared to agree to continued negotiations on the basis of the pre-1967 lines. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the Palestinian quid pro quo, which specified the goal of two nation-states for two peoples — a Jewish nation-state and a Palestinian nation-state.
All is nearly but not yet completely lost. As of Thursday afternoon, some of those in the know were describing the situation as “still fluid.” Tellingly, almost two days after Abbas dramatically signed up “Palestine” to 15 international treaties and conventions in an apparent screw-you gesture to the US and Israel, Netanyahu’s office was still batting away a deluge of requests for comment. The something-for-everybody deal — Israel releases the fourth and final batch of long-term terrorism convicts, including perhaps a dozen Arab-Israelis, as well as 400 security prisoners not involved in violent crimes; Israel halts new settlement housing tenders; the Palestinians come back to the table for at least nine more months and eschew the unilateral route to statehood; and the US releases Jonathan Pollard — could yet, just possibly, be revived. Netanyahu had been well on the way to mustering a cabinet majority for such an arrangement when Abbas got his pen out on Tuesday evening.
But in Jerusalem on Thursday there was a degree of bafflement as regards Palestinian intentions — today, and looking back over the unhappy eight months since Kerry so sunnily hosted Livni and Erekat in Washington. Netanyahu emphatically wants the talks to continue, even though there is no indication whatsoever that he and Abbas could ever find mutually acceptable positions on most of the core issues of a permanent accord. But does Abbas want the crisis resolved? Or was the entire Kerry-led negotiation exercise just a pretext, under which the PA would secure prisoner releases and then shift back to the unilateral route — bashing Israel in every possible forum, seeking international endorsement for statehood, while claiming to have negotiated in good faith?
Kerry’s confident assertion that he could midwife peace in nine months was always unwarranted. But one of the sadder aspects of this deeply troubled pregnancy is his own flawed midwife role — the facilitator who sometimes became a complicator.
For it was Kerry who inexplicably gave Abbas to understand that Israel would be prepared to free some of its own citizens in the course of the agreed, four-phase program of 104 terrorist releases — when Israel had made no such commitment. And it was then Kerry, flailing, who sought to sweeten that bitter pill, and wound up prompting a political uproar in the United States, by dragging Pollard into the equation.
It’s not clear that Israel would have released the final batch of prisoners as scheduled last weekend without a promise by Abbas to continue the talks. But the dispute over the Arab-Israelis on the list certainly didn’t help. And it was that delay in the prisoner releases that prompted Abbas’s international treaties stunt — heralding the current crisis.
There will be plenty of dire consequence, including the terrible possibility of a lurch back into violent confrontation and an upsurge in terrorism, and plenty of blame to assign if this week does indeed mark the end of Kerry’s bid for a deal. The Palestinians have a weak president who, while no duplicitous, terror-fostering Arafat, never confronted the narrative bequeathed by his unlamented predecessor, to the effect that the Jews have no sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world. The Israelis have a prime minister who, facing a choice of confidence-building demands from the PA, opted not to take the pragmatic path of curbing settlement expansion and instead betrayed victims’ families, undermined the justice system, and encouraged future terrorists to believe they can get away with their crimes, by freeing dozens of vicious killers.
At the heart of the impasse, however, lies a fundamental asymmetry: Israeli Jews have come to believe that their own best interests, and specifically the imperative to retain a Jewish and democratic Israel, require an accommodation with the Palestinians. There is no comparable imperative on the Palestinian side — not, that is, so long as much of the international community persists in indicating to the Palestinians that they will be able to achieve full independence and sovereignty without the inconvenience of coming to terms with Israel.