by Mitchell Plitnick
The so-called “renewed” Israel-Palestine peace process is turning out to be nothing more than an illusion, as many observers from across the political spectrum expected. But the United States is apparently intent on blowing more smoke to maintain that hallucination as long as possible. And the Palestinian Authority, typically, is falling into a trap.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s idea to keep a tight lid on the proceedings was a good one if talks lead somewhere. If they don’t, the aggrieved side is likely to head to the media to air their grievances, feeling that the process is not getting them where they want and that public pressure is their only option. Doing so, however, will surely anger the United States and open the door for the party causing the leaks to end up with the lion’s share of the blame for the talks’ failure.
Amid reports of deep Palestinian dissatisfaction with the way the talks are going, the US seems to be offering the public the same long-view analysis that they did months ago. Not commenting on what is actually taking place between the Israelis and Palestinians in their discussions, a senior State Department official offered the view that the turmoil in Syria and Egypt is spurring the two sides toward compromise.
“Both sides have made clear to us and to each other that they do not want the turmoil to engulf them and that therefore it motivates them to try to resolve their conflict to prevent that from happening,” the official told reporters. This rationale was part of the explanation Kerry offered as he was bringing the sides together as to why this time would be different from previous rounds of talks. It fails, however, to address the matters that are bringing the talks crashing down, which are just like those problems from previous talks.
Palestinian negotiators have been telling reporters that Israel is insisting on a new interim agreement, where a provisional Palestinian state would be established on 60% of the West Bank and no settlements would be removed in the initial stage. That is a non-starter for Palestinians, and they were making that clear before the talks even resumed. For their part, the Israelis, and specifically Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been making it equally clear that they will not use the 1967 borders as a reference and are not seeking anything more than establishing a new interim arrangement. So, the new impasse was entirely predictable. And this gives the US view the air of a performance, hiding the very real evidence that these talks were doomed from the first and the US should have, and may well have, known it.
Kerry’s decree that both sides refrain from talking to the media suits Israel just fine. The talks progressing at a snail’s pace or making no progress at all is very much in Netanyahu’s interest. Should there be measurable progress, it would set off a firestorm of political controversy in Israel, and would jeopardize his coalition, which is sympathetic to Israel’s settler population in the West Bank and is overwhelmingly committed to blocking any compromise on the key issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu’s biggest concerns thus far have centered around his own people; his man in the negotiating team, Yitzhak Molcho, is there to restrain Minister of Justice and lead negotiator Tzipi Livni from actually negotiating too much. So he is more than content to abide by Kerry’s diktat about talking to the media.
But the Palestinian team has to be concerned about the perception among their populace that they’ve been dragged back to the table to talk and allow Israel to claim it is negotiating in good faith while new settlement construction continues apace. Israel certainly has not made it any easier for them, announcing several new expansion projects in key settlement areas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And Israel’s refusal to recognize the 1967 borders as a starting point, and the US’ acceptance of that stance, gives the Palestinian people even more reason to see these talks as nothing more than a sham. The PA negotiators are desperate to find a way to get the United States to change this framework, but the US was playing an understated role from the beginning. That led to the first Palestinian complaint of US mediator Martin Indyk not being involved in the discussions. With US eyes fixed now on Syria and the soap opera playing around that issue on Capitol Hill, it is far less inclined to reconsider its approach to Israeli-Palestinian talks. So, they go to the media, leaking their complaints in the probably vain hope the US will care.
While the US is not very concerned about these Palestinian leaks for now, that is likely to change at one of two points. The first possibility could occur if the Syrian crisis diminishes in some way, Egypt doesn’t erupt again and there is a comparative calming. Then people might start paying attention to these sputtering talks and the Palestinian complaints could become a more prominent story. This doesn’t seem as likely as the second possibility: the talks fail and the blame game begins. That raises the question of whether the Obama administration will follow the example of Bill Clinton and blame the Palestinians. It might consider the devastating effect on any hope for peace that Clinton’s initial blaming of the Palestinians resulted in (he later modified his story, but by then it was too late and, in any case, a lot less people were paying attention). But Netanyahu will surely be portraying the Palestinians as the party responsible for the failure, and will be able to use as evidence the fact that they, publicly, went along with Kerry’s program while the Palestinians did not.
The fact that Kerry this week entreated the European Union to back off even their very meager ban on funding projects in and with Israeli settlements while the question of bombing Syria was raging says a lot about his disposition in these talks and the naiveté of the Palestinians in ever thinking the US would even try to get Israel to negotiate toward a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. There hasn’t been even the slightest hint of US pressure on Israel to make any concessions whatsoever, and this is why the Palestinians have run to the media, despite knowing that Kerry and Obama would be displeased. Unfortunately, US behavior in these revived talks has met and exceeded even the lowest expectations of fecklessness and fully reaffirmed its position as a thoroughly dishonest broker.