Who defined the art of successful politics as “keeping abreast of changing circumstances, and turning each change to your advantage”? They might have had John Kerry, US Secretary of State, in mind. No astuter politician is currently operating in the global arena. But even the wiliest operator can be overwhelmed by events and, with the end of April looming, an air of desperation has pervaded what might be called “the peace camp”.Kerry’s brief from newly re-elected President Barack Obama, just starting his second term in January 2013, was to give high priority to achieving a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama had had a first shot at this, back in 2010, and had indeed succeeded in bringing the two principals – Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas – to the negotiating table. Optimism had been high, all the building blocks necessary to construct a full accord had been identified, and all the parties present pledged to have an agreement in place within a year.
In the event, the initiative was dead within a month, sunk on the insistence by Abbas that Israel’s ten-month freeze on construction in the West Bank be extended – a demand that was impossible for Netanyahu to grant, given the fragile nature of the coalition that sustained his government.
Nothing daunted, Obama on being re-elected charged his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to get the Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face again. His motives in twice biting into this Middle Eastern hot potato, as part of a wider and woefully misguided global strategy, would merit a book in itself – and columnist Jonathan Rosenblum has made a insightful first step in this direction. But Kerry accepted the brief, and succeeded. So it was that, on 29 July 2013, under his benign eye, peace negotiators Tzipi Livni for Israel, and Saeb Erekat for the PA, shook hands in Washington to launch "sustained, continuous and substantive" talks aimed at reaching an agreement on the long-sought final status between Israel and Palestine – talks with the declared objective of establishing a sovereign Palestine side by side with Israel.
Optimism was, if anything, even higher than in 2010, for this time all declared that no more than nine months was necessary as the gestation period to achieve a deal. Talks started formally on 29 July 2013, and the agreement would be born by 29 April 2014.
That the discussions would be long, complex and difficult could have been foreseen. Many groups and individuals on both sides – some with crucial political clout – had no interest in achieving a two-state solution to the long-running dispute, and opposed the initiative from the start. Even those who supported it would scarcely have believed, at the start of the process, that the stark irreconcilability of the two parties would scupper the original timetable.
But finally it became abundantly apparent that no final status agreement was conceivable within the widely announced nine-month period. Acknowledging the impasse. the optimistic Kerry turned the altered circumstances to his advantage by adroitly shifting the goalposts. In a master stroke the objective of the nine-month negotiations was altered. No longer were the parties striving to achieve a peace deal within that constricted time-frame. Now Kerry announced that that this first nine-month phase would be used to produce a “framework agreement”, endorsed by both parties, which would encapsulate the principles – including areas of non-agreement – that would form the basis of on-going discussions.
With every likelihood that such a document would merely be a re-statement of the obvious, it was not a very inspiring prospect. But if the end-result was something signed by both sides, and if both sides had agreed to continue talking, Kerry would have snatched a brand from the burning.
It was not to be. As March 2014 ended, yet more political ducking and weaving was called for. According to the agreement originally brokered by Kerry – the agreement that underwrote the peace negotiations – Israel undertook to release around 100 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, the last batch on March 29, 2014. However, by the due date no negotiations had taken place between the two sides since November 2013, and in the interim the PA president had flatly refused to consider acknowledging Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and had sought and obtained the endorsement of the Arab League to the same refusal. He had also indicated that he had little interest in continuing peace talks beyond the April 29 deadline. It seemed that Abbas proposed to accept the final batch of released prisoners, and forthwith end the negotiations. So Israel balked at that final commitment.
The reaction of Abbas was to renege on his undertaking not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 deadline. In a heavily publicized event, he formally applied to join 15 international agencies, a move aimed at gaining the benefits of statehood outside the negotiation process.
The result? Kerry cancelled a planned return to the region during which he had expected to complete an agreement aimed at extending negotiations into 2015. In that emerging deal, rumor was that the United States would release Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel some 30 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
So turmoil marks the final days of Kerry’s original nine-month timetable. The endgame is chaos, confusion and disarray as Kerry’s right-hand man – Middle East envoy Martin Indyk – shuttles back and forth between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams in an ever-more desperate effort to snatch some sort of victory from the jaws of defeat. Telephone lines between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah must be red-hot, as Kerry attempts to persuade or cajole Netanyahu and Abbas to give way on some modest elements of their demands, so as to allow a compromise of sorts to emerge. The US president and his secretary of state have invested so much time, effort and prestige in this Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that total failure would be a major humiliation – one that they may indeed be gearing themselves to face.
Stark reality seems to be dawning even on the persistent, canny John Kerry.
“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend,” he is reported to have said. “If the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps to move forward. We’re not going to sit there indefinitely. So it’s reality check time.”
The count-down to reality has begun.