by Mitchell Plitnick
John Kerry’s words at a report-back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent shock waves all the way to Jerusalem. “Unfortunately, prisoners were not released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released,” he said. “And so day one went by, day two went by, day three went by. And then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment. We find ourselves where we are.”
That was well outside the usual boundaries of discourse for top US officials, and it certainly got noticed. Kerry’s own State Department subordinates quickly rushed to reaffirm that “…today, Secretary Kerry was again crystal clear that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game.”
But the message was clear and Kerry himself has taken no steps to truly back off from it. He technically didn’t “blame” Israel. Rather, as he put it, “I only described the unfolding of events and the natural difficulties involved in managing such a complex and sensitive negotiation.”
The message, in a nutshell, is that the Obama administration is fed up with Bibi Netanyahu and his antics. That’s been welcomed by the vast majority of thinking analysts and observers who understood long ago that Israel has acted as the major obstacle to talks and that US pandering to Netanyahu was only going to harden the Israelis’ positions. But that welcome needs to be cooled a bit.
However frustrated Kerry may be by Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declining to accept a US-brokered deal that was absurdly lopsided in Israel’s favor, the peace process must, apparently, go on. The United States continues intense efforts to bring the two sides back to the table despite the fact that months of talks have only been counter-productive and that the current goal of the talks is to find a framework for talks. At this point, the entire Oslo process is little more than a joke. If anything, it resembles a zombie from the television show, The Walking Dead — it’s really dead but it just keeps walking around and making noise.
Despite Kerry’s testimony, he’s staying in the business of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the table, and there’s one reason: the only goal remaining on the Obama administration’s agenda is to prevent the talks from completely breaking down on their watch. Yet it seems even that modest goal is beyond Kerry’s grasp. According to Israeli officials, the method for bringing the talks back to zombie-life is to re-issue the offer Abbas pre-empted with his application to fifteen international treaties and institutions. The only changes apparently on the table are compensation to Israel for Abbas’ heinous crime.
Despite Abbas’ unusually bold action in those applications, his track record of submission suggests he will cave-in again. Still, it’s hard to see how he can justify such a turnaround under these circumstances. So, it’s slightly more likely that he will not agree to this. But the most likely outcome is that the Israelis and Palestinians will continue to squabble, and that the deadline of April 29 will be upon us before Kerry can put the sham talks back together.
Given the beating the US is taking around the world over other issues, especially Ukraine; and the always-tenuous balance of maintaining the Iran nuclear talks, Kerry may have no choice but to finally give up on this poorly planned and even more poorly executed attempt to secure a resolution of the Oslo process. It’s now too late, but given the enormous amount of energy Kerry has devoted to this quixotic task, he may not be able to admit it. In any case, the US now must choose between looking foolish by giving up or looking even more foolish by pressing on in this effort when it’s clearly not prepared to do what it would take to get something done.
Abbas has pretty much mapped his post-talks course, and it certainly seems like most Palestinians are anxious to see it happen. That is, increased activism at the United Nations, including applying for accession to the Rome Statute, which would allow the Palestinians to bring Israeli leaders to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. Israel is very concerned about that, and that’s why despite the total harmlessness to Israel of the Palestinians’ fifteen international applications, Israel is reacting with increased threats, including an announced intention to steal the tax revenues Israel, by agreement, collects for the Palestinians.
In fact, it is in Israel where we have seen the most activity in response to the breakdown in talks, and none of it is encouraging. The Israeli opposition took days to comment. Zehava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Zionist Meretz Party had, as one would expect, the clearest criticism, saying Israel had given the United States “the finger.” The ostensible leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, was less harsh, but called for new elections. That would, however, be foolish as recent polls clearly indicate a strengthening of the right-wing majority. The two parties within Netanyahu’s coalition — HaTnuah and Yesh Atid — which are supposed to be holding Bibi’s feet to the peace talks fire, scrambled desperately to find credible ways to support Netanyahu instead.
Netanyahu’s critics have come from his right flank, in two different ways. First, Trade and Labor Minister, Naftali Bennett of the religious HaBayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party called for Israel to annex large chunks of the West Bank to punish the Palestinians for their fifteen applications. While there is no chance Israel will do that in the near future, Bennett has been pushing annexation since he rose to the top of his party and has vowed to intensify the public campaign in this direction. Given the ongoing rightward trend among Israeli citizens, this is a cause that could gain considerable momentum going forward.
Then, Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman continued his efforts to position himself as the next Prime Minister by meeting with Kerry and publicly stating that Kerry didn’t blame Israel for the breakdown. Lieberman thus gave the impression of himself as a true diplomat, an image the radically right-wing and historically undiplomatic leader of the largely Russian Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, has been trying to cultivate ever since he came back to his post after being suspended while under investigation for corruption charges. Lieberman still invites great skepticism among Israelis, but his image is definitely improving.
Bennett, having gotten wind of the attempt by Kerry to revive the talks, then publicly declared that he would pull HaBayit HaYehudi out of the government if the previously arranged deal, or anything similar, went through. Bennett is known for bombast, and the fact is that this stance of his is not supported by his own party. Even HaBayit HaYehudi Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who played a central role in derailing the talks by announcing new settlement construction just as Kerry was trying to put a crutch underneath the discussions, disagrees with Bennett.
Still, these challenges from his right flank are serious for Netanyahu in the long-term, although right now, his popularity is rising among Israelis. That is probably more dismaying than anything else. Israel has, at last, killed the Oslo process and Abbas’ apparent willingness to continue working with the United States to keep them going for no discernible purpose is not winning him any points among his own public.
In the end, the situation is merely a more concentrated form of the one which has held for most of the Oslo era. The United States insists on both managing the process and keeping it going. It calls on the Israelis and Palestinians to make “hard choices” and take “bold steps,” yet administration after administration is unwilling to make its own choices and take its own steps in the face of expected political backlash to bring about a deal. Israel keeps its own goal front and center; that being to make sure that it minimizes, or even eliminates, the possibility of any significant Israeli concession. And the Palestinian people wait for a leadership that will defend their interests and recognize that cooperation with the United States will never get them to their goals of independence and self-determination.