Despite Palestinian unilateralism, talks will likely limp on

A Pollard-for-prisoners deal could hand Netanyahu a tangible achievement, but the negotiations it’s meant to salvage are irretrievably deadlocked

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

No, the peace process is not dead. At least, not yet.

Although nothing is certain in these turbulent, crisis-filled times for the negotiating process — in which the Palestinians unilaterally turn to international agencies and US Secretary of State John Kerry announces and then cancels trips to the region at a dizzying pace — it still appears more likely than not the Israelis and Palestinians will continue negotiating for at least another nine months.

Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s dramatic signature of application for membership in more than a dozen international organizations does not necessarily spell the end of the road.

Some pundits initially thought his move was a clear breach of the commitment he made before the talks started, not to unilaterally advance Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. But Kerry pointed out that the 15 agencies and treaties to which “Palestine” announced it was seeking membership on Tuesday evening do not “involve the UN,” and more importantly, the International Criminal Court is not among them, and so Jerusalem shrugged the move off as mere posturing.

The details of what exactly Abbas signed were not clear, but Palestinian officials cited by Reuters said the documents included 15 conventions of international and UN groups. A senior Palestinian official said one of the documents was the Geneva Convention.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior aide to Abbas, indicated late Tuesday that the Palestinians could still reverse course, and not submit the signed applications, if Israel were to release a promised group of prisoners immediately, according to The Associated Press. He urged the international community to pressure Israel to do so.

The show, it seems, must go on, even though the events of the last few days have further depleted the parties’ already-low confidence in one another’s sincerity.

Neither side is interested in alienating the US by leaving the negotiating table, but both Abbas and Netanyahu are trying to at least come away with something in return for an agreement to extend the talks beyond their initial nine-month period, which ends April 29.

Although White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday evening that President Barack Obama had not yet decided whether to pardon Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard — who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina jail — a trilateral deal appears to be emerging that would ensure the talks continue.

“There are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena and I’m not going to get ahead of where we are,” Carney said in what marked a cautious but still a noticeable departure from previous flat-out denials that clemency for Pollard was even on the table.

Israeli and American officials confirmed Monday that the deal under discussion would entail Pollard being freed within two weeks. In return, Israel would go ahead and release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, including Israeli-Arab citizens, along with an additional 400 Palestinian security prisoners. Jerusalem would also commit to a policy of “restraint” regarding settlement construction (outside Jerusalem). The PA would, in turn, commit to remain at the negotiating table at least until January 2015.

If all sides agree to this deal, Netanyahu will face great opposition at home, where such a move must obtain the cabinet’s blessing. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon has threatened to resign if any further prisoners are released and has called on his colleagues to follow suit. Several other ministers have voiced their opposition to a Pollard-for-prisoners deal.

Israelis demonstrate at the Western Wall for the release of Jonathan Pollard in 2005. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israelis demonstrate at the Western Wall for the release of Jonathan Pollard in 2005. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Nonetheless, if Netanyahu managed to bring Pollard “home” after nearly three decades in captivity, either by ramming a deal through the current cabinet or by reconfiguring his government, it would be his first tangible achievement in the current round of peace talks.

It is no secret that the prime minister had no great hopes when restarting negotiations with Abbas. And yet, due to intense pressure from Washington, he was willing to pay a heavy price — releasing more than 100 terrorists — to get the Palestinians to the table.

If Pollard goes free, he will have succeeded where successive Israeli premiers beginning with Yitzhak Rabin could not. Netanyahu will have paid a steep price, but at least he will have gained more than just the dubious pleasure of having Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho continuing their largely deadlocked dialogue with Saeb Erekat.

The mere fact that Washington is considering releasing Pollard underlines have severe the peace talks crisis has become. Many experts believed that the US would keep him as a key bargaining chip, the ultimate ace up its sleeve, to be pulled out later in the negotiations, perhaps in order to push Israel into a crucial concession on the way to a final-status deal. That the administration may be willing to give up Pollard this early in the game speaks volumes.

Indeed, the Americans are acting out of “diplomatic desperation,” a former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer, fumed in an op-ed Tuesday, urging the administration not to “demean American diplomacy” by throwing “a convicted spy into a half-baked deal only to buy time for a peace process that appears to be floundering anyway.”

Others opine that releasing Pollard is a worthy cause if it can salvage the talks.

“Some may say that if [Pollard] is so politically important, we should get something of value for his release,” wrote Dennis Ross, a former American diplomat and currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Easy Policy. “Perhaps, but at a time when the Middle East is characterized by upheaval and US foreign policy needs to demonstrate effectiveness, we can ill afford a collapse of the current efforts to negotiate between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, signs an application to  UN agencies, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, signs an application to UN agencies, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg argued that Pollard’s release would mean a political triumph for Israel’s prime minister, “and it would create feelings of gratitude for Netanyahu among the right-wing ministers in his ruling coalition.” But, he warned, “these feelings would dissipate entirely at the exact moment when Netanyahu returns to the business at hand: trading land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace.” While most right-wingers in Netanyahu’s cabinet would love to welcome Pollard to Israel in time for Passover, “they will not trade land for him, not one inch,” Goldberg asserted. “To think otherwise is foolish.”

However, if needed, the Labor party would be more than willing to replace Naftali Bennett’s nationalist Jewish Home party in the current coalition, thus helping Netanyahu reshuffle his cabinet in a way that could allow him to demonstrate a little more flexibility at the peace table.

Not everyone is entirely bleak. The proposed Pollard deal could actually be a sign that the talks are “nearing the end game,” according to Brent Sasley, who teaches about Middle East politics at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Netanyahu knows that any sign that an actual deal is coming means Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home would leave the coalition,” Sasley wrote in the Forward. “Though he has several other options to reform the coalition, he still needs to amass a critical number of domestic political points to ride out the criticism he’ll receive and the uncertainty that the public feels regarding a Palestinian state.”

But the fact is that even if Netanyahu somehow manages to push the current deal through the cabinet and extend talks, and Abbas goes along, the chances of those talks resulting in a peace agreement remain close to nil. At the end of the day, whether Pollard spends Passover in a North Carolina prison cell or as a free man in the Holy Land, the maximum Netanyahu is willing to offer has been, is and will be too far from the minimum Abbas is ready to accept.

When he relaunched the talks last July, Kerry spoke of a permanent accord inside nine months. Not long after, he was resorting to a “framework” accord to try to keep the negotiations going. After months of back and forth between the sides, even that modest idea has fallen by the wayside, and it has come to this: Releasing Pollard just to buy a few more months.

For this complex gambit to be attempted, one might imagine that Kerry has concrete plans for ensuring that more progress is made in the months ahead than was achieved in the months already frittered away. But one would probably be wrong.

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