by Mitchell Plitnick
It’s a busy week for Secretary of State John Kerry. On Monday, he received Israel’s top two negotiators, Tzipi Livni and Isaac Molho. Then he packed his bags and headed off to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Kerry will have any number of important tasks in Davos, but perhaps the highest profile of them will be a sideline meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These meetings, it is said, are meant to “bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians.”
If anyone was holding out hope that these talks were anything more than a sham, those words should end such hopes. The framing of the United States bridging the gap between Israel and the Palestinians belies the reality of Israeli anger and Palestinian disappointment bordering on feelings of betrayal in terms of the US’ relationship with both sides. Let’s just look at where things stand.
President Barack Obama, it was reported last weekend, sees “less than a fifty-fifty chance” that a deal can be struck between Israel and the Palestinians. That’s what he told David Remnick of The New Yorker. It leaves a lot of space, and given Obama’s general subscription to the Realist school of foreign policy, one has to think he believes it to be much, much less than fifty-fifty. Remnick’s interview with Obama was a number of weeks back; it’s fair to believe that events since then have driven Obama’s estimate even farther down.
Last week, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon came out with as brazen an insult as can be recalled by a top Israeli official directed at a major US official, rudely describing Kerry as “obsessive and messianic.” The insult itself, exceptional as it was, was highlighted by the fact that Netanyahu did not rebuke his Defense Minister for insulting Israel’s patron. That sent a strong message about where Israel stands, and it could hardly have been missed within the context of Israel’s having recently raised the bar for even a framework agreement yet again.
That was done in the first week of 2014 when Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud faction in the Knesset that he would never consent to withdraw from Hebron or Beit El, two settlements with historical religious significance to Jews, but exist well outside the settlement blocs that Israel has long assumed (along with the US) — despite a lack of Palestinian agreement — would remain under Israeli control in a deal. One can simply look at a map and see how even the most naïve and back-bending view of a two-state solution cannot possibly see an Israel in control of Hebron and Beit El allowing for a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
All of this is added to the already unreasonable Israeli conditions of maintaining occupying forces in the Jordan Valley under a bogus pretext of security as the former head of the Mossad recently confirmed; and on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State, something that is simply anathema to Palestinians, unprecedented in international relations and completely unnecessary for Israel. This leaves almost no foundation for Kerry to work with, no matter how dedicated he may be to bridging the two sides.
The Palestinians have raised other issues beyond these as well. Ongoing settlement construction, not only in the settlement blocs but crucially in the very much disputed areas of East Jerusalem, has been a major headache for the Palestinian negotiators. This is increasing pressure on the PA from within the West Bank and shifting a sizeable portion of Palestinian opinion from having lost faith in Abbas and his team to outright hostility toward them. That situation is certainly not about to abate. In response to European censure of Israel’s settlement project, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman displayed remarkable hubris in summoning five European ambassadors to rebuke them for trying to stand up for international law and basic pragmatism in peacemaking. So Israel is getting only more aggressive about its settlement expansion.
The Palestinians also voiced their displeasure last week at an early outline of Kerry’s proposal, which they said made no mention at all of the right of return for Palestinian refugees or of Jerusalem’s status as the Palestinian capital. They are already preparing plans to return to pressing their case for statehood at the United Nations in the expectation that these talks will fail.
So what can Kerry do? It would seem very little. The Palestinians are under so much internal pressure that they are standing much more firmly than they have in past negotiations. Israel keeps moving the goalposts, despite already having set down conditions that no Palestinian leader could possibly meet. In order to create a bridge, there must be firm ground on either side to start building the two ends, and there seems to be far less common ground between Israel and the Palestinians than at any time since the two sides began negotiating two decades ago. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of ground for Kerry to stand on either.
No doubt, Kerry is hoping that he has some sway now over Netanyahu. The bill in the US Senate to increase sanctions and torpedo the fledgling diplomatic initiative between the P5+1 and Iran has stalled, at least for the moment, despite having gathered an appalling 59 co-sponsors. The preliminary agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has just gone into effect and so far is going well, while the US stood firm against Iran’s participation in the Geneva II peace conference regarding Iran’s ally, Syria. Having held the Iran issue at bay, Kerry may be thinking that his meeting with Netanyahu in Davos will be an opportunity to push Israel on the Palestinian issue and perhaps get Bibi to back off on some of the thorny issues. Kerry may well be hoping that if, for example, Netanyahu relented on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the US may be able to convince the Palestinians to, for instance, accept a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.
Kerry may believe Netanyahu is particularly vulnerable right now, as he has heard from a group of 100 Israeli business leaders that he must reach a peace deal with the Palestinians because “the world is running out of patience and the threat of sanctions is rising.” He also heard from key coalition partner, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party that he would quit Netanyahu’s government, threatening the governing coalition if the peace process did not get back on track.
But none of this is terribly likely to sway Netanyahu, even though it does represent more pressure to accommodate the peace talks than Bibi is accustomed to. And even if it does, it is highly unlikely that Mahmoud Abbas can afford to compromise on any of the current issues. If he allows a continued Israeli presence after an alleged “end to the occupation,” relents on Jerusalem, allows Israel to hold on to settlements outside the major blocs, or compromises on any of the issues that Netanyahu has brought to the fore in the last year, there is likely to be a major upheaval in the West Bank.
More likely, I think, is that Kerry is playing a carrot and stick game with Israel. He is smacking Bibi down for his arrogance on the peace process and his audacity in once again brazenly trying to play Congress against the Obama administration on Iran. His message in that case would be that if diplomacy with Iran is allowed to proceed apace, Kerry would allow Israel to maintain its intransigence unopposed after the April deadline for the current talks passes.
In either scenario, the Palestinians lose. There is no foundation for an agreement now between the two parties. The hope for a resolution lies not in this process, but in the growing threat of economic action along the lines of that which we’ve seen the Netherlands take recently coupled with renewed activism at the United Nations. Because above all else, it seems clear that Obama and probably Kerry as well understand that not only are the chances of success between Israel and the Palestinians “less than 50-50,” they are in fact about 50 points less.