The (possible) triumph of common sense

All parties involved need talks to go on, but everyone is misbehaving, leaving Abbas with few options

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.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (second from left) speak with the press after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (second from left) speak with the press after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Perhaps clearer heads will yet prevail. After a multitude of reports about crises — some reliable and some less so — news came out Thursday about progress in the US-led talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Sources in Washington confirmed that gaps between the sides had been narrowed, though no agreement had been reached.

It is in the interest of all the parties involved to reach a breakthrough that will allow the talks to continue until the end of the year, at least. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and US Secretary of State John Kerry all want — and need — an agreement to keep talking. Without it, Israel expects heavy international pressure and an increase in terror; the PA might collapse; and Kerry could become a laughingstock.

As of Friday, nonetheless, the PA was insisting that differences between the sides remain wide, Netanyahu was facing major coalition strains over the terms of a possible deal, and Kerry had been sounding increasingly impatient.

No more Mr. Nice Guy, the diplomat who always tried to be the babysitter couldn’t hold back on Tuesday. In testimony before Congress about the breakdown, he pointed a finger directly at Israel. Chronologically speaking, Kerry indicated, Israel started it.

The chronology is clear: On March 29, Israel was supposed to release 26-30 prisoners, including Arab Israelis, but the release was postponed. As the days went by, while Israel complained that Abbas was not committing the continuing the talks beyond the end of April, the Palestinians believed that Israel was avoiding the release primarily because of Netanyahu’s fears over the reaction of the political right.

Then another player stepped onto the court — Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who, according to chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, made it his personal mission to sabotage the talks. Ariel did not like the new deal in the works to release 400 prisoners in exchange for an extension of the talks, plus a partial freeze on settlement construction, plus the release of the fourth batch of security prisoners, and carried out his own targeted killing of the talks. While an American deal to solve the impasse was in the works, Ariel went ahead and re-released an old tender for new building in East Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood.

Ariel knew that no one in his Jewish Home party would dare criticize him, nor would the prime minister. After all, Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal, indivisible capital.”

He may also have believed that the tenders would cause a crisis in the talks and, perhaps, even their end. Despite this, much of the Israeli press went along with the Prime Minister’s Office, which placed the blame squarely on the Palestinians for the breakdown in negotiations.

Even now, more than a week after Abbas applied for membership in 15 international organizations and treaties, it is still hard to determine whether the impasse is real and the two sides are headed toward conflict, or if it’s one big act by both sides. The problem is that, even if it is a manufactured crisis, it could easily become real and dangerous.

The talks, about a deal for more talks, are continuing for now, and they are progressing. According to senior Palestinian sources, the key dispute between the sides about the extension of the talks centers on a settlement freeze: The Palestinians demand a full freeze, and the Israelis are willing to accept only a partial one.

In the meantime, the steps taken by those on the ground are creating more tension and bad blood. Take the Americans. for example. Kerry may have been right in his chronological description, but he apparently forgot the famous slogan of Army Radio: “In negotiations, don’t be right; be smart.”

Abbas’s much-publicized application for membership in international organizations may have benefited him in Palestinian public opinion, but significantly impacted Israel’s attitude to him. Still, the PA has at least tried since to stop the collapse of the talks; and, from an Arab League meeting with Abbas this week, a surprisingly moderate statement came out in support of the extension of the talks.

Something must be said on the wonders of the Israeli mind. At the beginning of the week, the PMO focused on sanctions on the PA as a response to Abbas’s steps. Among the sanctions envisaged were limits on a cellular company setting up antennas in Gaza and building a 3G network in the West Bank. Abbas’s sons are involved in the company. It’s as if someone is trying to corner Abbas; if he strikes a deal with Israel, he will be accused by Palestinians of looking after his family’s interests.

At the same time, an announcement was passed to the PA Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh, that the level of coordination and meetings between Israel and the PA will decrease — in areas other than those related to peace talks and security coordination. From then on, there would be no more meetings between senior PA officials and Israeli ministers or directors-general, and all coordination will be handled through the office of Gen. Yoav Mordechai, coordinator of government activities in the territories. Two days later, when Netanyahu’s office realized this “dramatic” step wasn’t  being seen as especially threatening or meaningful, a list was released of new sanctions that would be enacted if the Palestinians turned to the UN again.

But these measures won’t cause the PA to change tack either. On the contrary, the Palestinians will want to prove to their public that they are not giving in to Israeli pressure.

The same goes for the 15 conventions and treaties. Despite Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s demand that the PA retract its applications before Israel agrees to extend the talks, a senior PA official told The Times of Israel explicitly in fluent Hebrew: “Forget it; it won’t happen. The Sabbath has already started” — what’s done is done. But it seems that he, too, exaggerated, and the PA might retract at least some of its applications.

Abbas’s options

This week, several Egyptian media outlets (mistakenly) reported that Abbas is once again weighing his resignation in the wake of the crisis in the talks. This option is not realistic right now.

If the talks do end in failure, Abbas still has options — but an intifada or violent conflict is not one of them. The first possibility is, of course, joining more international organizations, while maintaining the “no talks” status. Security cooperation with Israel would apparently continue, but that would also depend on Israel’s actions. This week, calls have already been heard among the Fatah leadership to cease security coordination if Israel continues its sanctions against the PA.

If the PA does turn to international bodies, it still has no intention of applying to join all the 48 organizations on PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat’s list at once. According to Palestinians sources, Abbas’s plan is to apply in stages — a phased program, just like the prisoner releases.

First, he will turn to 16 bodies that are not “casus belli” for Israel. After a few months, if the political stalemate persists, he will turn to the second batch — another 16 organizations and treaties, this time those that scare Israel more politically. In the final batch, the intention is to apply to the most problematic organizations for Israel, such as the International Criminal Court and the World Health Organization.

That’s the theory, anyway. How the Palestinian street reacts to political deterioration is another question, perhaps even a mystery. The Palestinian public is largely apathetic and isn’t interested in a general clash, but an uptick in the level of violence against IDF forces and settlers certainly sounds plausible. Abbas won’t encourage violence or attacks, but certain Palestinians groups will seek an escalation and will try to lead it.

The dismantling of the PA isn’t an option either for Abbas or the Fatah leadership. There are too many financial and personal interests wrapped up in the issue, and not necessarily corruption. For example, what will Abbas do with the tens of thousands of PA workers and security officers who won’t receive salaries? This is a sure recipe for a violent explosion, which Abbas doesn’t want.

A final option — which everyone loves to talk about, but no one does anything to actually make it happen — is intra-Palestinian reconciliation. But here as well, Abbas doesn’t have real possibilities. Hamas is in no hurry to hold elections or endanger its hold on Gaza. Abbas doesn’t have the economic ability to support 40,000 Hamas government clerks (on top of tens of thousands of PA clerks who used to work in Gaza and still receive full salaries from Ramallah) if real reconciliation happens.

So what is the PA left with if talks end? Not much, it seems. It is not interested in an intifada and, in these crazy times, even the continuation or cessation of the negotiations isn’t considered a huge deal because of other, intra-Fatah issues. All senior Fatah officials are concerned with one thing nowadays — the movement’s general elections, or the Seventh Fatah Conference, scheduled for August. Thousands of committee members will decide who will lead Fatah in the near future, and may also pick Abbas’s successor. The PA chief, for his part, will try to have one of his loyalists elected.

Until then, at the very least, the negotiations, without meaningful accomplishments, will be a burden for Abbas and the candidates in the election, who will try to distance themselves from contact with Israel.

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