by Mitchell Plitnick
If John Kerry wants to find a silver lining in the heavy criticism US foreign policy has faced due to the events in both Egypt and Syria, he might find it in, of all places, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The secretary of state embarked on the talks by saying there would be no discussion of them in the media; that any reliable information about them would only come from him; and that he would not talk about them. Given the history of leaks in such talks and the widespread coverage generated by any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, this seemed like a very ambitious promise. But amid an imminent attack on Syria after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and the controversial, tacit US support for a coup in Egypt that turned out to be a lot more bloody than Washington probably expected, attention has been completely drawn away from the Israel-Palestine conflict.
That must have come as a relief this week for Kerry. Things were difficult enough, with Israel having announced major new settlement projects soon after the rekindled talks began. For the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) negotiators, who certainly knew that some sort of Israeli construction would continue during the talks, it was the size and locations of the planned settlement projects that caused the problems. It was not easy for them to credibly continue on with the talks, but they did.
Then, on Monday, Israeli forces went into the Palestinian town of Qalandiya, located in the “Greater Jerusalem” area, which is under full Israeli control, in an attempt to arrest a Palestinian for allegedly dealing weapons. The raid, which started off as just another one out of about 500 such operations that Israel performs in the West Bank every month, ended in blood, with three Palestinians dead, one of whom was apparently an employee of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
In response, the Palestinians announced that a negotiating session with Israel, scheduled to take place that day in Jericho, had been cancelled. Israeli media claimed that the meeting took place, and the US denied that the meeting had been cancelled. But the Israeli government itself was silent on the point, and the PA never retracted the statement of cancellation. So, who knows?
What we do know is that the violence in Qalandiya is just another example of how difficult it is to hold negotiations during Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s true that most of the time, raids like the one undertaken on Monday are executed at night, precisely to avoid confrontation with the people living in the town being targeted. For whatever reason, this one was carried out in the morning, just as people were going out to pursue their daily activities. But that also is not entirely unusual — it’s not the norm, but of the hundreds of such operations that take place each month, some number happen when others are around.
Thus, confrontation is inevitable, from time to time. But under these circumstances or others, confrontation cannot be avoided under the umbrella of occupation. And, while incidents that result in fatalities have been rarer in recent months, that has yet to become the norm.
Had the Qalandiya clash occurred when people outside the West Bank were paying attention rather than looking at Syria and Egypt, it may well have jeopardized talks beyond the point where the PA could continue. It would have come on top of the settlement expansion controversy and the (also largely under the radar) Palestinian complaint that the US, which the Palestinians are counting on with astonishing naïveté to help push Israel into an agreement, is not taking an active role in the talks. Israel, for its part, is insisting that greater US involvement would be an impediment. The surrealism of that debate cannot be overstated.
The sum total of all of this is that the talks, barely a few weeks old, are off to a terrible start, from what we can see of them. And it is hard to imagine what we might not be seeing that could substantially change that assessment.
On top of these issues, today there was a report in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting increasingly mistrustful of his Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, who is also the leading government representative for peace negotiations. Livni was widely viewed as a fig leaf (and a fairly weak one, being a decidedly conservative figure herself, her clear support for a two-state solution notwithstanding) when she joined Netanyahu’s government, but she’s not exactly on the same page with Bibi on peace talks.
The Ma’ariv report indicated that Netanyahu was dismayed that Livni had offered too many “concessions,” particularly on the matter of territory and in even broaching the topic of Jerusalem. Netanyahu obviously knows these things need to be discussed, but he doesn’t want to do so too quickly. So much for the mantra that “everything is on the table”, which has been repeated by Israel for months.
Livni also has to contend with working hand in hand with Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s closest confidante and his frequent messenger to the US, Palestinians and other foreign leaders.
The denials of any friction that came from both Livni’s and the Prime Minister’s office were pro forma statements and rang extremely hollow. Ma’ariv claims that Molcho believes that the goal of these talks should not be a permanent and comprehensive agreement, but an “agreement in principle,” the details of which would be worked out later. It is overwhelmingly likely that this is Netanyahu’s view, and Livni’s attempts to follow through with what the US has stated as a goal of these talks, a full and final agreement, which the Palestinians have embraced, is what is causing the tension.
Such a provisional agreement would almost certainly be a non-starter for the Palestinian leadership because it would be a repeat of the Oslo Accords of 1993, which, twenty years later, have not brought greater Palestinian freedom. What’s forming is a very grim picture that’s seemingly implying that even the most pessimistic predictions for this round of talks might not have been pessimistic enough.
At some point in the near future, attention will not be as absolutely diverted toward Syria and Egypt as it is today. Until then, any political fallout in Israel, the West bank and the US can be forestalled. But once eyes are back on these peace talks, the political piper will demand his payment. If this is still what peace talks look like by then, Kerry may have to re-examine his strategy of silence. He may need to figure out some way to throw people a bone of hope to counter what has been, to date, almost uniformly negative messages about the talks. The silver lining of distraction is a transitory gift at best.