That April 29 came and went on Tuesday without an Israeli-Palestinian comprehensive agreement came as a surprise to absolutely no one.
No one – except perhaps US Secretary of State John Kerry – really thought that after a century of conflict, 20 years of negotiations, and the efforts of countless presidents, secretaries of state and special envoys, this time was really going to be that different.
Sure, Kerry said that the conditions had changed in the region substantially, and that the Arab world was behind a deal whereas in the past it was more hesitant; that both sides understood the price of failure; that he was on very good working terms – after 30 years in the Senate – with the leaders on both sides. In short, he argued that this time the stars were aligned just right. He was wrong.
What is surprising is not that there is no accord to celebrate today, but that there is not even an agreement on Kerry’s pared-down goal of reaching a framework of principles that would form the basis for a continuation of talks. Forget that, there is not even an agreement to continue the talks, which many thought was attainable.
So nine months after Kerry – along with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat – relaunched the talks at an Iftar dinner at the State Department, Erekat wasn’t talking about peace on Tuesday, or about reconciliation with Israel, but about how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had taken advantage of the nine-month negotiation period to “consolidate [Israel’s] apartheid regime.”
It is indeed ironic that April 29, 2014, if remembered at all, will be remembered not for any breakthrough – even a modest one – in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather for Kerry having to issue a statement backtracking on his comment that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state if a two-state agreement was not signed. Now, there’s a day that did not go at all like Kerry planned.
One could argue that in the final analysis, the situation today between the Israelis and Palestinians is not significantly better or worse than it was nine months ago, when the talks started. They might get worse if the Hamas-Fatah marriage is consummated, but that is a huge “if.”
And it is an “if” that Israel is watching carefully, not taking any dramatic steps until it becomes clear whether this pact will indeed come to fruition.
This is the reason Israel has not taken any significant steps since the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation announcement.
Yes, the government suspended the talks with the Palestinians, but that was only six days before the April 29 deadline, and therefore not as significant a step as it might seem. True, the government stopped planning for Palestinian projects in Area C of the West Bank, but that is something easily reversible. Granted, there has been talk of deducting money the PA owes Israel from the tax funds Israel transfers every month to the Palestinians, but that step remains in the “talking about it” stage.
And on Tuesday, Netanyahu canceled a meeting that was to deal with more construction in the settlements.
What all this indicates is that Israel learned the lessons of November 2012. At that time, in response to the Palestinian success in gaining acceptance to the UN General Assembly as a non-member state, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 housing units in Jerusalem and major settlement blocs, and to begin planning and zoning for a new neighborhood in the highly controversial E-1 section on the western outskirts of Ma’aleh Adumim, between there and Jerusalem.
With that response, the world shifted its attention to Israel’s steps, not the Palestinian move – abridging previous commitments and taking unilateral steps at the UN – that led to those steps.
This time there has been an obvious decision not to repeat that mistake, not to take steps that would direct the world’s fire at Israel instead of the PA. And that was one of the reasons Jerusalem was so taken aback by Kerry’s apartheid comment. It just reinforced a sense that no matter what Israel does, or does not do – or what the Palestinians do, or do not do – Jerusalem will bear the brunt of the criticism.
If Israel is to take the risks that the US would like to see it take, it will have to believe that the US administration is being fair and sincerely understands it and its concerns. By blaming the breakdown in the talks on a decision to build 700 more housing units in Jewish neighborhoods like Gilo beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem – as Kerry implied during his now-famous “poof” testimony to a Senate committee two weeks ago – the secretary of state was seen by many Israelis as being unreasonable, since the vast majority of Israelis believe that those neighborhoods – such as Gilo, Ramot and Neveh Ya’acov – will forever remain a part of Israel.
And by warning that Israel will become an apartheid state – meaning a state based on a pernicious philosophy of racial superiority and institutionalized racism – if a two-state solution is not agreed upon, Kerry has left many Israelis wondering whether he gets them, despite his clarification.
It’s one thing for Israeli leaders – like Livni and former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – to use the “A-word” in the heat of a hyperbolic debate on what is best for the country, and quite another thing for the US secretary of state to use the term when talking to other world leaders. As cited above, it took only about 24 hours from the time Kerry’s comments became public for Erekat to accuse Netanyahu of consolidating Israel’s “apartheid regime.”
The bottom line of nine months of talks is that nothing really moved, and nothing significant changed – except one thing: Kerry’s credibility with the Israeli public. Despite his nearly 30 years of having a pro-Israel record in the Senate and his sincere friendship, that credibility has changed for the worse through a series of almost inexplicable misstatements. And that is not a good thing for a diplomatic process he hopes to continue shepherding along.