A Tragedy of Errors: U.S. Incompetence in Israel-Palestine Talks, Part II

by Mitchell Plitnick

In part one of this piece, I began sketching the picture that emerges from the words of U.S. diplomats to an Israeli reporter. There’s more here, and the image is one of the United States as the party ultimately responsible for the failure of not only this round of peace talks, but also the previous rounds. I’ll resume here by completing the analysis of what was reported in YNet.

On the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” the group of anonymous U.S. diplomats told Israeli reporter Nahum Barnea:

We couldn’t understand why it bothered him [Mahmoud Abbas] so much. For us, the Americans, the Jewish identity of Israel is obvious. …The more Israel hardened its demands, the more the Palestinian refusal deepened. Israel made this into a huge deal — a position that wouldn’t change under any circumstances. The Palestinians came to the conclusion that Israel was pulling a nasty trick on them. They suspected there was an effort to get from them approval of the Zionist narrative.

Seeing this in print truly shocked me. There were three objections to this idea from the Palestinians. Those where there all along, yet the U.S. speakers seem aware of only one of them: the validation of the Zionist narrative over the Palestinian narrative. The other two objections were that such recognition (unprecedented in international relations, one hastens to add, and something that Israel demands only from the Palestinians and no one else) would necessarily give a Palestinian stamp of approval to discrimination against non-Jews in Israel, most of whom are Palestinian; and that it would, by definition, preclude the question of the return of Palestinian refugees, a matter Abbas may be resigned to, but which he wants to deal with in negotiations in the hope that some redress for the refugees can be settled upon.

For these reasons, the recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is a major red line for Abbas. It was so when the issue was first mentioned by Ehud Olmert years ago, and has been true for all the time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking about it. This is no secret, everyone on all sides knows what the issue is and why it is controversial. Everyone, that is, except the U.S. team assigned to mediating these talks.

The U.S. reveals a level of incompetence here that is staggering. It’s true that many cynics like myself have long claimed that U.S. diplomats cannot be helpful in Israel-Palestine because they are much more concerned about keeping Israel happy than pressing for the politically difficult choices that must be made for any agreement, and/or they just don’t understand what’s going on. But even for us, this interview adds a new dimension: the U.S. team is not only way out of their depth in dealing with Israel, they apparently have no idea that this is even the case. That combination of ignorance, enormous hubris and basic incompetence is the only explanation for the way these people are speaking about the collapse of the peace talks, which went exactly as most observers, across the spectrum, said they would go.

Ultimately, this picture forces the question: just what do we expect the Israeli government to do? Even if the Israeli leadership was more moderate, do we expect them to take huge political risks simply out of the goodness of their hearts, or because of threats that remain theoretical?

Why, I wonder, do we expect Israel to behave differently than any other government? There is a serious imbalance of power between Israel, a stable country with functioning political systems, a relatively well-to-do economy, and by far the strongest military in the Middle East, and the Palestinians, who have no infrastructure, no government, an economy barely sustained by international aid and no means of self-defense.

That means that Israel, like any other powerful entity, yields nothing without a demand. And that demand cannot merely be spoken, nor can it be based on abstract notions of justice and peace. Those principles move people to create the pressure that leads to change, but values like peace and justice do not cause governments to change their policies in and of themselves.

The Netanyahu government is the most stable leadership Israel has had in decades. Netanyahu himself has spent more time in the prime minister’s office than any Israeli leader except for David Ben-Gurion. He’s not there because he is a peacenik. Do we expect him to act in direct violation of the wishes of his constituency, especially when most Israelis, while supportive of a two-state solution in the abstract, have repeatedly demonstrated, in polls and at the voting booth, that they are not willing to risk or sacrifice much for that peace?

Do we truly expect Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader to take steps that most Israelis believe, rightly or not, will put lives at risk, and that will, inevitably, create unprecedented political turmoil in the country? Do we expect Netanyahu, just out of a sense of morality, to take a step that will mean the loss of some significant water supplies for Israel and that, given the shifting nature of the Arab world today, may or may not really lead to regional peace? One can fathom Israel taking that risk, but only if there is a compelling reason. There isn’t one right now.

Israel does not fear that its ongoing occupation will brand it as an “apartheid state”; in many people’s eyes, it already is one. And international opprobrium may have manifested in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but to date, that campaign has not done any harm to the Israeli economy. Maybe one day it will, but right now, BDS is not pressuring Israel to change. While international anger over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has caused a few financial institutions to pull away, capital is still flowing in on the whole. And most of Europe joins with the United States in maintaining strong business ties to Israel. All of these conditions might change, and when/if they do, that might constitute real incentive for Israel to change its approach. That is surely the hope of the BDS movemet. But right now, Israel is not feeling that pressure and does not expect to feel it in the near term. Its sometimes hysterical reaction to BDS is carried out on the level of a propaganda war, not as a strategic political issue.

However, Israel is concerned about the Palestinians dragging their leaders to the International Criminal Court (ICC). So they are preparing their defenses, and they will respond to the Palestinians with harsh measures if they try. Again, at this point, all this is potential, and not actual pressure. If the ICC actually attempts to try Israeli leaders for war crimes, this may change Israel’s thinking, but that is a long way off, and still depends on the Palestinians actually deciding to go that route, though recent developments do make it seem more likely that the Palestinians will do so.

What about this possibility, raised by one of Barnea’s contacts?

There’s great potential for deterioration here, which could end with the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli soldiers will have to administer the lives of 2.5 million Palestinians, to their mothers’ chagrin. The donating countries will stop paying up, and the bill of $3 billion a year will have to be paid by your Finance Ministry.

That’s a possibility, but here’s another one: the PA collapses, Israel is forced to assume control and the cost, and Netanyahu, or his successor, appeals to Capitol Hill to help defray the costs by restarting the program of economic aid to Israel that was discontinued in 2008, and even expanding it significantly, as would be necessary, since economic aid to Israel was always much smaller than military. The argument will be couched in supporting our good friend, Israel, and also that paying Israel is the only way to maintain stability without having to put U.S. boots on the ground. There are various ways the U.S. could help defray these costs, and, again, Israel does not fear the Palestinians turning their cause into one for civil rights within Israel. They believe — again rightly or not – that there is enough support around the world for a Jewish state and that, when push comes to shove, this will supersede concern for Palestinian rights.

These factors come together to eliminate any perceived pressure on Israel to compromise. This, more than anything else, is what the United States fails to understand. Ultimately, the U.S. got almost everything wrong in this latest effort, to such an extent as it made their predecessors seem well-informed. But what is most important is this: if you’re not prepared to create the pressure that is required for Israel to make concessions and deal with the fights, in Jerusalem and in Washington, that this will involve, then don’t bother even starting such a process.

Obama seemed to understand this at the beginning of his first term. He tried to pressure Israel into a settlement freeze. But he underestimated the forces that would oppose him, and when he failed, he essentially pulled back. But then he let Secretary of State John Kerry convince him that his personal rapport with the Israelis would make a difference. He was as wrong as you could be. And the result is a politically emboldened Netanyahu and great despair in the Occupied Territories.

And if Israeli policy is so entrenched, U.S. policy seems all the more so in light of Kerry’s humble but dogged effort to make a change in the U.S. approach. The United States has been embarrassed here, and this was one of the most costly episodes, in terms of U.S. credibility, in this conflict where U.S. support for Israel while pretending to be an “honest broker” has been draining U.S. credibility for decades.

Yet despite that, no one expects anything to change in Washington. One last quote from Barnea’s interlocutors: “The boycott and the Palestinian application to international organizations are medium-range problems. America will help, but there’s no guarantee its support will be enough.”

So, if we had any doubt about what comes next, that little tidbit dispels them. Yes, Obama is fed up with Israel, and Kerry is frustrated. Both men are well aware that Netanyahu has repeatedly made the U.S. looked foolish. Kerry has been personally and directly insulted by several Israeli officials just in recent months. But the U.S. will still shield Israel as much as it possibly can.

So when Obama says he’s taking a time out, many have read that as him throwing up his hands and saying “Fine, Israel and the Palestinians can just fight this out themselves.” But that’s not what will happen. Diplomacy may stop, but the $3 billion a year of military aid will continue. So will diplomatic support at the United Nations, where the U.S. will continue to veto every significant UN Security Council resolution that tries to promote an end to occupation. And the U.S. will continue to act as Israel’s advocate in the UN General Assembly, with the Europeans, with Arab states…with the world. In the end, stepping back from this shuttle diplomacy is just another way for the U.S. to make matters worse.

Maybe out of the ashes of this embarrassment something better will rise. But that will only happen if the United States and every other outside player finally learns the lesson of why all these efforts keep failing. The initial indication, as Barnea kindly informs us, is not promising.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. @Hunter

    Sure, USA could attempt to impose settlement but I don’t think any side is ready for that.

    Mores possible: USA may tender a plan — which both sides will hate — and then walk away stating that if both sides will agree (more or less even) then USA will be there with full support to execute it, but otherwise now too busy with other global matters.

    I agree that all leaders could be heroes at global level but 2 of 3 leaders fear losing election.

  2. I continue to think John Kerry should indicate the 2002 Saudi peace plan offered a fair resolution of the Israel/Palestine dispute, provded a few tweaks here and there were made.

  3. The US Congress in effect helped to prevent a political deal in Israel, to enable resolution of Israel/Palestine problem, by rewarding Israel for continuing to grow the illegal colonies in the West Bank.

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