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Washington watch: The blame game
By DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD
04/02/2014
The prisoners, Palestinian and Pollard, are really a sideshow and have nothing to do with the core issues.
 
What happens when you combine Let’s Make A Deal and The Price Is Right? You get the Israeli- Palestinian Blame Game masquerading as a peace process. The host of the show is the indefatigable John Kerry, and the contestants are Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, who wish he’d leave them alone and go back to Rome or Crimea or Vienna or Brussels or wherever it is that people really want his help.

The crisis du jour is Israel’s reluctance to release 26 prisoners unless it gets something tangible in return, namely Palestinian agreement to keep the peace talks going into 2015. Abbas won’t commit himself until the 26 are freed and Netanyahu sweetens the deal. The latest group of prisoners slated for release includes Israeli Arabs, which has generated intense opposition across Israel.

The Netanyahu government also complained that the Palestinians have failed to engage in serious and good faith negotiations. Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, claims that over two decades of negotiations the Palestinians “did not budge an inch. In certain areas, they even moved backwards.”

The Palestinians respond with a similar charge, charging that Netanyahu has retreated from terms offered by two of his predecessors; the prime minister insists that doesn’t count since the Palestinians rejected those offers and Netanyahu opposed them at the time.

Back at the souk, Netanyahu is offering several hundred low-level criminals, but no murderers, and a partial settlement freeze, but he says he wants “something in return.”

It looks like he’ll get that, in the person of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. President Barack Obama is reportedly ready to free Pollard as an incentive for Netanyahu.

That certainly won’t sway Pollard’s supporters, who are largely opposed to Palestinian statehood.

Their hero’s freedom would not change a single vote.

And it’s unlikely Pollard’s release – which would extract a heavy political cost for President Obama in his intelligence and defense establishment – would alter Netanyahu’s resistance to compromise on any of the substantive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Netanyahu and Abbas will agree to continue the talks into next year, but neither shows much optimism or enthusiasm.

That appears evident as both parties seem to be haggling over everything but what they’re supposed to be talking about: peace. In fact, the two sides haven’t even had a real meeting since last November, and none is planned. All the conversations are through Kerry’s team.

The secretary of state may be the only one who thinks these talks can produce a peace agreement, and even he long ago gave up on achieving that by the end of this month. Now they’re haggling over incentives to keep talking until the end of the year.

The glue in the talks seems to be a mutual desire to avoid being blamed for the collapse. They’ll pull together an extension agreement for another reason: neither side, despite their lofty rhetoric to the contrary, may be willing to make the tough choices necessary for a peace agreement, but each is ready, willing and able to make the other one’s life miserable.

Part of the bargain Kerry crafted last July to end a three-year hiatus in peace talks was Israel would release 104 Palestinians who’d been jailed since before the 1993 Oslo Accords in four tranches, the final one being last weekend. In return the Palestinians suspended their demand for a settlement freeze and promised not to pursue their Plan B, an international campaign of boycotts, sanctions, divestment and punitive measures against Israel for the duration of the talks.

Continuing the talks means Palestinian won’t use this fall’s UN General Assembly session to launch their multi-faceted offensive, including joining international agencies where they could pursue charges against Israel and seeking full statehood recognition. The latter would require Security Council approval and an American veto can be expected, but there’s no such protection in the other bodies.

Another threatened move would be filing charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court at The Hague alleging settlement construction and other activities in the West Bank constitute war crimes. Also on the Palestinian game plan are massive demonstrations, a possible third intifada, civil disobedience actions and court challenges.

Israel could retaliate by applying intense economic pressure, blocking imports and exports, restricting movement, limiting job permits and sweeping security crackdowns. The latter is the touchiest because the high level of security cooperation today is very beneficial to both sides.

In addition, the Congress – pressed by a pro-Israel lobby that shows little interest in a truly equitable peace – would likely cut most aid to the Palestinian Authority and adopt other restrictions.

The two sides seemed to be locked in a battle of wills over Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish nation state. Instead of keeping this question in the closed negotiations like the other core issues – Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees, water – the Israeli leader has chosen to give it a very high public profile and make it the deal breaker. Abbas has responded by declaring not only would he never agree to such a demand, but he isn’t even willing to discuss it.

The impasse also adds to questions about each leader’s intentions. Are they using this issue as a poison pill designed to force the other to scuttle the talks? At this point neither man seems interested in finding a compromise.

Kerry’s original plan to finalize an agreement by April soon gave way to shaping a framework for the final-status talks on the core issues, and now it appears that may not even be in writing but a statement by Kerry that both sides would orally indicate their “yes but” and “no but” nods.

The prisoners, Palestinian and Pollard, are really a sideshow and have nothing to do with the core issues.

If these talks fail, it won’t be Kerry’s fault, but he will be blamed, said Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York. That’s because “Israelis and Palestinians have always agreed on one fundamental, immutable conclusion explaining the absence of a permanent peace deal: It’s America’s fault.” But the real culprit, he offers, is their own “inability, unwillingness and reluctance to make decisions.”

For these reluctant peacemakers success will come when Kerry tosses in the towel, goes home and says, “OK, you’re on your own.”
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