It wasn’t what US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday, but how he said it, that generated headlines from Jerusalem to New York blaming Israel for exploding a deal to extend the peace talks.
‘Poof, that was sort of the moment,’ he said.
It was a narrative exclamation, and pause, strong enough to be heard round the world.
It fell, like a slow drumbeat, on one of the most sensitive issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Jewish building over the pre-1967 lines, in Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements.
A well-crafted message from the State Department holding both Israelis and Palestinians culpable for the crisis in the peace process did little to mitigate the impact.
On the surface of it, Kerry said all the politically correct things as he testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington.
He used well-worn phrases that veteran observers of the conflict have come to know by heart. At one point he burst into a surprising moment of passion when pressed by Republican Senator John McCain to recognize reality and admit that the talks were over.
“I may fail, I do not care. It is worth doing,” Kerry stated.
But it was his description for the lawmakers of how events in the last week unraveled that drew everyone’s attention.
Israelis and Palestinians in the last few days have engaged in a blame game that sounds, as it often does, like the age-old riddle of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
For Israel the latest drama began when Palestinians stopped participating in direct negotiations sometime after the December release of a third round of prisoners. Freeing Palestinians involved in past terror attacks had been a strategy designed to ensure the continuity of face-to-face talks over nine months.
When direct talks broke down temporarily, well in advance of the April 29 deadline, it made Israel hesitate to go through with the fourth and final release of 26 prisoners scheduled for March 29 until it knew it would be worth the price. Israel asked the Palestinians to extend the talks by another nine months.
For the Palestinians the price for the scheduled March 29 release had already been paid over the past months of negotiations.
When Israel hesitated to free the prisoners without a guarantee for another nine months of talks, Palestinians saw it as a breaking point in a process that already seemed fruitless, given Israel’s continued settlement building over the months of negotiations.
They took unilateral steps to ratify 15 international treaties and conventions as a protest move.
For Israel those 15 applications crossed a redline, and it canceled the fourth release of prisoners, thereby creating a point of no return for the Palestinians.
But while Kerry said the 15 applications were not helpful, he didn’t pause in that part of the narrative, nor did he state that this was the point of no return.
He described matter-of-factly what happened after the March 29 release was delayed, as both sides tried to conclude a deal to keep the talks going for another nine months.
“Unfortunately, the prisoners weren’t released on Saturday, when they were suppose to be released,” Kerry said.
“A day went by. Day two went by. Day three went by,” Kerry said. He moved his arms to underscore his words.
“And then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof,” Kerry said, as he spread his arms wide and paused. It was a move that accentuated the drama.
Kerry then finished his sentence: “That was sort of the moment,” he said, as he brought his hands down.
It is possible that his words and gestures were simply descriptive and he did not mean to cast aspersions on Israel in that moment.
He might have paused and placed weight on the moment, as any good storyteller would, just because factually that is what happened. He believed the two sides were closing in on a deal, and then Israel announced the publication of 700 tenders for the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo over the Green Line. And then the talks broke off. Or, he could have meant to subtly point a finger at Israel.
No matter what his intent, his words hit a nerve, because he spoke of “settlement” building and then the break down of talks.
Even without Kerry’s words, the Israeli Left and much of the international community already blames the absence of a final-status agreement and the continuation of the conflict on Israeli building in West Bank settlements and east Jerusalem.
When they listened to Kerry, they heard a well-trod narrative they already believed to be true.
The Israeli Right, in turn, and its supporters abroad heard what in their view is an aspersion that they reject – that settlement building is a stumbling block to peace. To them, it was an aspersion made worse, in this instance, because the “settlement” Kerry spoke of is Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood, which most Israelis who support a two-state solution already see as an integral part of the state.
The absence of a two-state solution affects core issues of the conflict such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security.
Kerry was quick to point out Tuesday that the gaps on these core issues have narrowed, and that those gaps did not cause last week’s crisis in the negotiations.
The argument that created the crisis, he said, was all about process, not about the core issues. But then he himself in his testimony, in one simple line, made settlement building the core problem.