Things can change quickly in the Middle East, but right now, as I gaze Sarah Palin-like from my suburban Maryland office across the Atlantic and Mediterranean, it looks like John Kerry’s attempt to reignite peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians lies in smoldering ruins. The talks were based on a very clear deal between the parties. The Israelis would release 104 Palestinian political prisoners, and in exchange the Palestinians would forgo pressing international organizations to recognize Palestinian statehood and condemn the Israeli occupation. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was supposed to release the last batch of prisoners on March 29, and it reneged. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave Kerry two more days to persuade the Israelis to reconsider; but he failed, and so Abbas, who was under severe pressure from his own people and party, applied to join 15 United Nations organizations, where the Palestinians are expected to make their case against the Israelis. Kerry, who has now canceled the last-minute trip he had scheduled to the region, says he wants to "keep the process moving foward." But his noble effort, begun last August, is running on fumes.
The actual talks between the Israelis and Palestinians broke down last November and have not resumed. In December, Kerry gave up hope of reaching, as he had originally insisted, a comprehensive “final status” agreement by April 29. Instead, he pressed for a bare “framework” agreement. To do that, he followed a well-worn path of American negotiators: seeking first an agreement with the Israelis that he could then sell to the Palestinians. But Netanyahu kept putting requirements on the table that went beyond what two previous Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, had demanded of the Palestinians: an indefinite presence for Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu refused to budge on an undivided Jerusalem. Kerry took these demands to Abbas, and added allowing the Palestinians to erect a capital in a single neighborhood of Arab-occupied East Jerusalem. Abbas predictably refused. And that was that for the framework.
In the last week, as it became clear that Netanyahu, with his coalition deeply divided, was reluctant to release the prisoners, Kerry appears to have become desperate to continue the negotiations for their own sake. He seems to have proposed that, in exchange for the United States granting an early release to the imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard before he becomes eligible for parole next year, Netanyahu would release the final batch of Palestinian prisoners and freeze housing starts in the occupied territory. Abbas, in turn, would then agree to continue negotiations for six months, even without any agreement on a basis for negotiations. Where to start in explaining what was wrong with this initiative? The United States was proposing to do Netanyahu an immense political favor—one that would infuriate American security and defense officials—to get him to something he already promised to do. Netanyahu has always responded best to sticks not carrots—beginning with the Wye River negotiations during the Clinton administration. He tends to pocket concessions and then ask for more, as he has done during these negotiations. Would this time be different? As Kerry was also pressing Netanyahu to suspend housing starts in exchange for Pollard’s release, his government issued today 700 tenders for housing starts in the occupied territories. And these come on top of an acceleration of housing starts since the talks began.
The Obama administration may still make good on the offer to release Pollard. There are arguments pro and con about whether Pollard’s sentence for espionage was excessive, but, again, here are the facts that have led successive administrations to reject the Israeli campaign to free Pollard. Pollard pled guilty to an offense for which a person “shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for any terms of years or for life.” He offered secrets to other countries besides Israel, and those secrets he sold to Israel were seen to compromise American security. Pollard has become a cause celebre in Israel, but when the FBI and Naval Intelligence began questioning him, the Israelis did nothing to help him. They denied him asylum at their embassy in Washington. If the Obama administration really thought Pollard’s sentence was excessive and that he should not be forced to wait until he is eligible for parole next year, it should have pardoned him five years ago. To do so now demonstrates desperation and weakness in their negotiations with Israel’s government. It’s diplomacy at its most feckless.
Netanyahu has now outfoxed Kerry, as he earlier outfoxed Obama. He has probably spared himself a nasty battle with the “greater Israel” wing of his Likud party, led by Danny Danon, and with Naftali Bennett’s settler-based Jewish Home party. He could face dissent from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. I don’t know the intricacies of Israeli party politics well enough to say what the near future holds. Israel’s challenge from rejecting a two-state solution will be in the mid- or long-term, and will come from a destabilized and violent West Bank and from economic boycotts and sanctions abroad.
Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are now turning to UN bodies for help. They are placing particular hope in the Geneva Convention, which can declare the Israeli occupation a “war crime.” But the prospects are not bright that Israel will be shamed into meaningful negotiations by resolutions from United Nations bodies. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is on the brink of collapse, according to a recent report from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, directed by a noted moderate, Dr. Khalil Shikaki. It faces rising violent crime, poverty, illness (from public health failures), and continuing political strife between Fatah and Hamas.
As I read the news today, the Doors’ song, “The End,” kept playing in my mind. “This is the end … the end of an elaborate plan.” Maybe it isn’t the end of American peace efforts, but it sure looks like it. Abbas was the most moderate leader that the Israelis have ever had to negotiate with, but Netanyahu was not ready to make a deal—his coalition itself was too divided—and the Obama administration was not willing to put the kind of pressure on him that might have led him to act boldly. Kerry deserves credit for initiating the negotiations—I doubt that without him, Obama would have done anything in his second term—but Kerry was largely on his own. There was little sign that Obama was willing to risk the furor that would greet any attempt to press Netanyahu hard to make concessions. So Kerry followed a familiar diplomatic script—shuttling between the sides, interminable discussions between teams of negotiators, frameworks, deadlines—but, sadly and perhaps predictably, it does not look like the play will have a happy ending.