A few months ago, the Americans decided it was time to sit back down at the negotiating table.
Secretary of State John Kerry wanted to show President Barack Obama that he could achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East. Kerry succeeded in convincing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, despite the fact that everyone – except maybe for himself – understood that, as usual, it would not bring about any real results.
Netanyahu figured he would gain serious points for brining Israel back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians without agreeing to any preconditions (or so he thought at the time). Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) expected to buy time in which he could broadcast optimistic messages to his supporters and present himself as a true advocate of peace. Both sides believed they would benefit from the great PR this would provide them, and that everyone would be happy and hopeful that they would reach a peace agreement.
But we must admit that even then no one truly believed that negotiations had a chance. We knew from experience what would happen next. In a perfect world, negotiations were supposed to begin without preconditions. But of course, that’s not what ended up happening. The Israelis and the Palestinians both had redlines they were not willing to cross. Israel was not willing to give up certain territories, and this was a non-starter for the Palestinians.
The Palestinians declared that Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state, and Israel firmly announced that under no circumstances would Jerusalem be divided. The Palestinians demanded that the Jordan Valley be demilitarized, and this week the Palestinians creatively suggested that the perfect compromise would be for NATO forces to be stationed there in place of Israeli soldiers.
The Palestinians are demanding that refugees going all the way back to 1948 be allowed to return to their original homes, whereas Israel is categorically opposed, and only agrees that they could live in the new Palestinian state. Israel demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but they will only agree to recognize the State of Israel.
But the secretary of state apparently didn’t think much ahead about how complicated it would be to rule a Palestinian state that is being led by two distinct organizations.
Fatah will continue to function as a slipshod military organization and Hamas will remain a murderous terrorist organization that controls the state of Gaza.
The only issue on which anything has been settled and implemented within the framework of political negotiations is the release of political prisoners. Once again, the Palestinians managed to demand and succeeded in getting prisoners with blood on their hands released from prison before Israel could put its foot down and pass legislation restricting the release of political prisoners.
The Palestinian families greeted their loved ones who were released from Israeli jails as if they were greeting royalty, while the relatives of the Israeli victims of terrorism renewed their protest against the government for releasing these murders. In his opening remarks, even John Kerry acknowledged that the details of the preconditions were not yet finalized, and that both sides would need to make courageous concessions in order for negotiations to advance.
We’ve experienced very similar situations a number of times now. In 2010, an American initiative to renew negotiations failed when the sides could not come to an agreement on preconditions. The Europeans and Americans made a number of unsuccessful attempts during the previous decade to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. One time, the second intifada broke out, and another time, there was a terrible bombing. The other times, both sides lacked the necessary motivation.
And even this time it was clear that neither side was extremely motivated to sit down with the other. Netanyahu knew that with the composition of his government and his footing within the Likud, he would not be in a position to sign an agreement with the Palestinians that included any kind of concessions. Abu Mazen knew that his people would never accept an agreement that didn’t include the return of refugees to Israel and Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Whatever agreement Abu Mazen would come home with would be considered a complete failure. So what’s the alternative? To talk some more.
Everyone knows that the greatest success we can hope for now is that the situation doesn’t deteriorate or escalate further. Each side was hoping to bide its time, knowing that nothing was going to come of these talks anyway. And everyone understands that under the current conditions, it is unlikely that the sides would reach a peace agreement that led to the establishment of a Palestinian state in any form that would acceptable to the Palestinians.
John Kerry also understood that it was essential to get the two sides talking with each other so that the situation wouldn’t deteriorate even further. Nobody else believed that negotiations would end with a signed agreement this time.
From the onset of the latest round of talks, the goal became the talks themselves and not an agreement that would be reached as a result of them. Washington was excited to brag about the fact that the Israeli and Palestinians had agreed to get back to the negotiating table. They prepped negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat for photo-ops and sent out excited news releases around the globe. Kerry would really like to be able to boast about his success in reaching a signed agreement, and not just for getting them to the table.
Now that he has realized that the window of opportunity might be closing soon, Kerry has resorted to threatening Israeli with a global economic boycott. Since he has no leverage with the Palestinians (they don’t have an economy that’s worth protecting), he’s chosen to focus all of his negative energy on Israel.
It looks like a solution to the conflict is still light years away. The Americans will probably have to be patient and wait for the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to change, and hope that their successors will be more supportive of an American-led agreement.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.