We’ll know within the next month, and perhaps even within the next week, whether there is any chance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during Barack Obama’s second term. Yet even if the negotiations between the parties survive past the April 29 deadline, there is little chance that they will succeed. The talks, which Secretary of State John Kerry initiated last July with enthusiasm and promise, are floundering. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to blame the Palestinians if the talks fail, but blame should almost certainly be assigned to Netanyahu and the Israelis.
Kerry has clamped down on leaks about the talks. And with some justification: Attempts to negotiate agreements through public jousting invariably fail. But there have been enough leaks, and I have talked to enough people who have either talked to the negotiators or been involved peripherally with the negotiations, to construct a tentative outline of what has transpired. But be warned: Some of the details remain murky, probably to the negotiators themselves.
Last July, the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to begin talks on a two-state solution. To smooth the way, Kerry got the Palestinians to put aside their campaign at the United Nations against the Israeli occupation and the Israelis to release, in four stages, 104 Palestinian prisoners. There were misgivings on both sides. Within the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), skeptics outnumbered those who believed an agreement with the Israelis was possible. They were won over by the promise of the prisoner release. Netanyahu’s governing coalition was also split, and probably would have to be reconstituted if he agreed to a two-state proposal.
According to Kerry’s plan, which both sides endorsed, the Israelis and Palestinians would reach a “final status” agreement by April 29 of this year. Kerry specifically rejected the idea of another “framework” that would merely outline areas of potential agreement. The Quartet of the U.S., European Union, United Nations, and Russia had tried that approach a decade before, and it had failed abysmally. So Kerry wanted the parties to resolve key issues, including borders, Jerusalem, security, water rights, and refugees, in nine months. Formal talks began in August, but broke down by November. No agreement was reached on any of the final status issues. In addition, Netanyahu had introduced a new issue—that the Palestinians must not merely grant recognition to Israel, as other countries had done, but recognize Israel specifically as a “Jewish state.”
Final proof of Netanyahu’s motives will have to await the release of his papers, but he appears to have introduced the new demand because he expected that the Palestinians would reject it and that he could then blame the failure of the talks on them. Israel is, obviously, a Jewish state, and has been described as such in United Nations resolutions and American diplomatic statements. But when Netanyahu made the term an unconditional demand in negotiations, he made clear that it meant that Palestinians would have to recognize that Jews had a legal right to Israel, based on Biblical history, that took precedence over their own claims to the land. Netanyahu was not simply demanding that Palestinians adopt a common sense usage, but that they deny their own historical ties to the land. He is “asking me to forgo my narrative,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat explained. He is also asking Palestinians to reject the right of return and ignore the political rights of Arab Israelis—and to do so as a precondition to agreement on anything else.
On matters of substance, Netanyahu refused to concede Palestinians a capital in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians still make up a majority of residents. Former prime ministers Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 had both accepted Palestinian demands for a capital in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu also insisted on an indefinite Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, which makes up a third of the West Bank; Olmert had agreed to an international force for a limited period. And Netanyahu would not explicitly accept the 1967 “Green Line” as the basis for negotiations over borders and land swaps. (To make matters worse, Israeli housing starts in the occupied West Bank more than doubled in 2013.) So in November, negotiations between the two sides ground to a halt, and have never resumed. Instead, the United States has negotiated separately with the two parties.
In December, Kerry gave up the attempt to secure a final status agreement and settled upon trying to achieve a framework for the talks. Kerry also adopted a negotiating strategy that assumed that Netanyahu, not Abbas, was blocking an agreement. Kerry set out to find provisions that were acceptable to the Israeli prime minister and his political base. He planned to formulate a framework proposal that he could then present to the Palestinians.
Over the next three months, Kerry and his negotiators acceded to Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and for Israeli troops being stationed in the Jordan Valley. (When they would leave was left unclear.) Kerry and his negotiators were stymied by how to reconcile the two sides on Jerusalem, but finally proposed to the Palestinians that they confine their capital to a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Abbas made key concessions to Kerry. He accepted an Israeli army presence in the Jordan Valley for three years, and then extended that to five years. Abbas’s negotiators also hinted that they would also recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but at the conclusion rather than at the beginning of negotiations. But Abbas was not ready to accept an indefinite Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley nor a mere neighborhood as the state’s capitol.
Kerry proposed that the two sides agree to the framework with reservations—a tactic that had doomed the Quartet’s framework proposal—but Abbas was not ready to agree to the proposal even with reservations. Yossi Beilen, who helped negotiate the Oslo Accords and served in three Israeli governments, commented, “Thus the U.S. repeated a familiar American error: the special relationship with Israel compels it to sit down for talks first with Israel; then, whatever is hashed out is shattered when the Palestinians, who were not party to the secret contacts, find the results untenable.”
In the aftermath of Abbas’s rejection, it is unclear whether Kerry and his negotiators have been able to come up with a new framework proposal. During their visit to the U.S. on March 17 and 18, Abbas and Erekat denied that Kerry had submitted a new document. Last Sunday, New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren claimed that Kerry’s attempt at a framework has “been all but shelved.”
As if matters were not difficult enough, Netanyahu threw a new monkey wrench into the negotiations. He threatened to not approve the release of the final Palestinian prisoners on March 29 if the Palestinians did not agree to extending the talks past the April 29 deadline, which would presume their agreeing to some version of a framework proposal. In response, Abbas warned that he would then leave the negotiations. And he would probably have to do so. In a December meeting of the PLO Executive Council after the negotiations had first broken down, a majority favored bolting the talks and taking the Palestinian case to the U.N. But Abbas had kept them in line by the promise of more prisoner releases. If the prisoners were not released, PLO support for negotiations would disintegrate.
As the talks have run aground, Kerry has finally begun to show signs of exasperation with Netanyahu. On March 6, when Obama described his meeting with the Israeli prime minister as “productive,” Kerry was heard to exclaim to Biden, “Productive??” At a hearing March 13 of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry departed from Netanyahu’s demand that Abbas recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” In response to a question from Rep. Brad Sherman, Kerry said:
A Jewish state was resolved in 1947, in Resolution 181 where there are more than 40—30 mentions of Jewish state. In addition, Chairman Arafat in 1988 and again in 2004 confirmed that he agreed it would be a Jewish state. And there are any other number of mentions. But those are sort of the most important acknowledgments thereof. I think it's a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace. And we've obviously made that clear.
That might suggest that Kerry has shifted his strategy and is pressuring Netanyahu to make concessions, but there have also been signs that Kerry has either been losing interest or giving up hope in the negotiations. In his opening statement to a Senate Committee on March 13, he mentioned American foreign policy concerns with the Ukraine, South Sudan, the Maghreb, Central Asia, the Korean peninsula, and Zambia, but not with Israel and the Palestinians. At a Town Hall meeting with students at the State Department on March 18, Kerry described the situation in the Ukraine and then listed “other challenges that are very real.” He cited “Syria, the challenge of Iran’s nuclear weapon, of Afghanistan, South Central Asia, many parts of the world.” Conspicuously absent was Israel and Palestine.
If Kerry does withdraw and lets the talks collapse, or simply allows them to peter out after a grudging agreement to extend them without a meaningful framework agreement, the Israelis and Palestinians are very unlikely to resolve their differences. And that could set the stage for a real tragedy. Palestinian leaders are threatening to go to the U.N. and to mount an international boycott campaign, but these measures probably won’t get the Israelis back to the negotiating table—not in the coming decade. The talks’ failure may well bring the most militant and intransigent factions among both peoples to the fore—those Israelis who want to create a “greater Israel” by annexing the West Bank and those Palestinians who fantasize about a one-state South African solution. The attempt to achieve either of these objectives will likely bring war and not peace.
Correction: An earlier version of the article said that Kerry's response about the Jewish state was to questions from Rep. Eliot Engel. His response was to a question from Brad Sherman, who was repeating a question Rep. Engel had asked.