The “grand deal” that was put on – and then abruptly taken off – the table this week to extend Israeli-Palestinian negotiations may or may not materialize in the end.
The Americans may release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard by Passover, and then again they might not.
Israel may “restrain” building in Judea and Samaria, and – in addition to freeing another 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of terrorism before the 1993 Oslo accords – release another 400 Palestinian security prisoners of its own choosing. But then again, it might not.
And the Palestinians might agree to a continuation of talks into 2015, during which they will refrain from seeking admission to all the world’s organizations, treaties and conventions. But then, they too might balk.
This particular ball is still very much in play, and nothing is yet certain. But what the very proposal of this deal has already done – regardless of whether in the end it is carried out or not – is to provide a peek into the mindset of the major players.
And what that peek reveals is the following: US Secretary of State John Kerry is desperate to save the process into which he has invested so much time, energy and political prestige. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very comfortable with the current coalition make-up and wants to keep it in place. And the Palestinians really believe that they can get more from mobilizing the world to pressure Israel than they can from negotiating with Jerusalem under the watchful eye of US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk.
First to the Americans: That the US, which has for so long refused to budge on the Pollard issue, is now apparently willing to use him as a “sweetener” to get Israel to make concessions that will keep the Palestinians at the table just shows what desperate straits the talks are in.
Pollard has long been viewed as a powerful card the administration was holding for a critical moment in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a major inducement for Israel.
Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, in his 2004 book The Missing Peace, discussed the administration’s thinking regarding Pollard when the idea of releasing him was broached during the Wye River Summit in 1998 between then-US president Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (during his first term in office) and PLO head Yasser Arafat.
“Is it a big political issue in Israel? Will it help Bibi?” Ross quoted Clinton as asking him at a crucial point in the negotiations.
“‘Yes,’ I replied, because he is considered a soldier for Israel and ‘there is an ethos in Israel that you never leave a soldier behind in the field.’ But if you want my advice, I continued, I would not release him now. ‘It would be a huge payoff for Bibi; you don’t have many like this in your pocket. I would save it for permanent status. You will need it later; don’t use it now.’” That the US was apparently willing to “use” the Pollard card now – some 16 years later – indicates firstly that time is running out on their ability to play this card, both because Pollard is eligible for parole in November 2015 and because of his poor health. But it also showed that Kerry sensed a major carrot was needed for Israel to make the concessions to the Palestinians that would extricate the current negotiations from their deep morass.
A failure in the talks right now would be a major blow for Kerry, who has invested so much time and energy in a process that has, over the last months, been downsized so dramatically. When the process was launched in July, Kerry spoke over-optimistically about reaching an accord in nine months, saying on a couple of occasions that the most difficult part was “the launch,” just getting the sides to the table.
Wrong. The most difficult part is getting the sides – once they are at the table – to agree on the core issues. Somewhere in November Kerry realized this was not going to happen, so the goal of reaching a full agreement was downsized to a US framework document that the sides would agree to as the basis for future negotiations. This document was supposed to materialize by the end of January.
But even that trimmed-down goal has proved unattainable, crashing on the shoals of a Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Now, that goal has been downsized even further: simply keep the parties talking.
But even that is in danger, which is why the Pollard card was waved. “No way will there be a deal with the Palestinians to release prisoners, without clear reciprocity to Israel,” Netanyahu told his Likud ministers Sunday.
The problem is that the Palestinians were not exactly chomping on the bit to provide any such “clear reciprocity,” so Kerry had to ante up.
The inclusion of Pollard into the discussion also shows that Netanyahu really does not want to change his coalition government, and that he is very comfortable with its current – rather unwieldy – composition.
He has Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua party on the Left, along with the five ministers of Yesh Atid; and he has Economy Minister Naftali Bennett on his Right, along with those ministers further on his Right inside his own Likud Beytenu party, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
Netanyahu is very comfortable having staked out the middle ground inside the cabinet, something that is politically convenient. To the Americans he can say that his hands are tied and the right wing of his cabinet won’t let him take certain steps (such as a total settlement freeze); and to his right wing he can say that the left flank has his hands tied and won’t let him take certain measures (such as building massively in the settlements).
This situation, however, would be in jeopardy were Netanyahu to bring the release of the final batch of 26 prisoners, including Israeli Arabs, to a cabinet vote – something he committed himself to do. Without the inclusion of Pollard, this deal would not go through, let alone the idea of releasing another 400 prisoners and restraining construction in Judea and Samaria.
Not only would the deal not go through, but it might very well have chased Bennett out of the cabinet, as it would be difficult for him to explain to his constituents how he could sit in a government that is not only releasing terrorists, but also curbing settlement construction.
Bennett’s leaving the government would not necessarily mean new elections, however, as it is quite possible that Labor could be enticed to move in and take its place, especially if they could portray this as a move to “save the peace.” But this is not Netanyahu’s preferred option.
Netanyahu wants Bennett and Bayit Yehudi around the cabinet table, and the inclusion of Pollard in the deal makes that possible, presenting Bennett with a justification for staying in the government. If more than 1,000 prisoners, including those “with blood on their hands” and six Israeli Arabs, could be released in 2011 for Gilad Schalit, then surely the same can be done for Pollard.
Bennett and Bayit Yehudi’s presence in the government – and the presence of someone like Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a champion of the settlement enterprise – has bought Netanyahu “industrial quiet.”
Think about it: negotiations are under way for an agreement that would mean the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the inevitable uprooting of settlements, yet the streets are quiet. There are no massive rallies in public squares, no symbolic acts of setting up new settlements on barren hilltops, no closures of main thoroughfares, not even the distribution of protest bumper stickers.
If Bennett leaves the government, however, that situation changes overnight, and the struggle would assuredly move to the streets. This is something Netanyahu is anxious to avoid, partly because it would invite greater pressure on him from the right-wing elements inside his own party, which he would not be able to forever ignore.
There is also, finally, something telling in the very composition of the deal: The US gives up Pollard, Israel gives up 426 security prisoners and promises to restrain settlement construction through Judea and Samaria, and not just beyond the security fence, and the Palestinians give up going to the UN for nine more months.
But, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demonstratively indicated Tuesday by signing letters seeking acceptance to various UN treaties and conventions, moving to international forums is not something the Palestinians will easily forfeit. Palestinian spokesmen explained Abbas’s move – just hours before Kerry was to meet him in Ramallah to seal the “grand deal” – as a response to Israel’s failure to meet the March 29 deadline and release, as agreed before the onset of the talks last July, the last batch of Palestinian prisoners.
But there is more here than just a titfor- tat Palestinian response. Senior Israeli officials have said in recent weeks that the Palestinians were counting down the days until the April 29 deadline in the talks, when they will be free to execute their Plan B – waging diplomatic warfare against Israel to isolate it, delegitimize it, and eventually force it through international pressure to give what it was unwilling to give in the negotiations.
After eight months of negotiating with Israel, the Palestinians see that what Netanyahu is willing to give does not meet their minimal requirements.
Moreover, what Netanyahu is asking for them to give – recognition, forfeiting the “right of return,” a declaration of end of conflict and all claims – goes beyond their capacity at this time to deliver.
After Israel missed the March 29 deadline for the prisoners, Abbas felt freed from his commitments to hold off going to the UN for the nine months of talks, and applied to join 15 treaties and conventions, most of them relatively mild. This is just a hint of what is in store.
The “grand deal” may or may not go through – it is still not clear. But even if it does, it will just kick the can down the road. Nothing has significantly changed on the ground to lead anyone to realistically believe that even if Kerry gets another nine months of talks or more, he will be any more successful at the end of next January than he was at the end of March. And if that is the case, then what we will see as the 2015 deadline approaches is pretty similar to what we are seeing now, as the April 29 deadline is fast approaching.
The Palestinians have a Plan B that they seem confident in – so confident, in fact, that they jumped the gun and gave us all a little taste of it this week. That Israel seems willing to release more Palestinian prisoners and curb building even in the major settlement blocs to keep them from executing that plan leaves one wondering whether Jerusalem has any way to combat it or, for that matter, any Plan B of its own.