There’s an old saying in the Middle East that there are three levels of dead: dead, dead and buried, dead and buried and not coming back. Right now the peace talks are dead and the guys with the shovels, Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, can’t decide whether to keep digging or resume talking.
Each thought he was clever enough to kill the talks and pin the blame on the other, but blame is about the only thing they have in common.
John Kerry still thinks he can resurrect the talks and even if he does, it’s not clear what that will mean. For starters, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas ever showed much interest and all the secretary of state really had was not real peace talks but talks about talking about peace.
Nine months ago he thought he could produce a peace treaty by now, but when that turned out to be mission impossible he went for an outline for peace talks, but even that proved elusive.
Each side speaks with many voices, blaming the other for the breakdown and making various threats and demands as the price of resumption.
The Palestinian list is packed with poison pills – starting with a demand that Netanyahu accept their position on borders and Jerusalem prior to any talks – that suggest they are not serious.
So why bother pushing them back to the table? Not to make peace, but to give the appearance of talking peace in order to stave off the consequences of achieving nothing.
Talks were already on the verge of collapse when Netanyahu held up the final installment of a prisoner release in a bid to extend the talks into next year. As sweeteners he offered to free several hundred additional prisoners and institute a partial settlement freeze. In return, Kerry offered to give him Jonathan Pollard, the spy who sold American secrets to Israel.
Former US Middle East envoy Aaron David Miller called the Pollard gambit “bad policy” that “reflects the weakness and desperation of an administration that is presiding over a peace process not yet ready for prime time.”
Abbas didn’t even bother considering Netanyahu’s offer, choosing instead to go on television to accuse the Israeli leader of violating their agreement, and to formally sign 15 applications to join UN conventions and treaties aimed at gaining leverage over Israel with the threat of war crimes charges. He, of course, violated his own commitment not to act before the end of April.
Kerry’s mission may have been doomed from the outset.
After many years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and dreaming of becoming president or secretary of state, Kerry had his own ideas about how to break the Middle East logjam. By the time he had the chance, the timing was all wrong. He was faced with two leaders who did not and probably never would trust each other, who could talk the talk of peace but were too risk averse to walk the walk.
Kerry’s energy, enthusiasm and self-confidence brought Netanyahu and Abbas to the table, but it could not change the hard reality that the maximum Netanyahu would offer could not come close to the minimum Abbas would accept.
Kerry may be able to get them to continue going through the motions of negotiations – again, just talking about talking – and that may be enough to keep them happy, although it will not make peace any less remote.
Neither leader will admit he is not ready, willing or able to make peace, but they will deny that because they need to protect their relations with Washington, the source of hundreds of millions of American tax dollars they want and need, and a lot more. Netanyahu also wants the Obama administration to keep the pressure on Iran in the nuclear talks, avoid international isolation and prevent another intifada.
The winners in the breakdown are the hardliners and rejectionists on both sides. Interestingly, Israeli and Palestinian public opinion supports a two-state solution, but each leader is shackled with splintered and hardline ruling circles he can’t control. Conversely, there is no strong public pressure on either side to make a deal.
Kerry, who publicly blames both sides, may have the most at stake. The collapse of these talks adds to the image of weak, indecisive and ineffective American foreign policy.
He has warned, “There are limits to the amount of time and effort the United States can spend, if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward.”
He would do well to follow his own advice.
He has a lot more urgent problems on his plate that require attention. The humanitarian disaster in Syria, the nuclear talks with Iran, Russian threats to its former satellites, the unraveling in Iraq, the military coup in Egypt, Afghanistan, North Korea, Chinese- Japanese territorial disputes, to name a few.
Rob Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “The most important step for the United States may be to reinvigorate the perception of American leadership and resolve.”
Being effective in Iran, Syria and other conflicts will make Washington more likely to be effective on the peace process, he said, noting that the issues are not connected except by the perception of American leadership.
Dan Schueftan, the Goldman professor at Georgetown University, said, “Kerry put up the whole prestige of the United States and the secretary of state for something that could never work and he neglected enormously important US problems in the region and elsewhere. It’s a misguided enterprise because there is no partner, the gaps are unbridgeable on everything.”
It goes back to what one of Kerry’s predecessors, James A. Baker III, told Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 1990: We can’t want it more than you do. When you’re serious about peace, call us.
Even if these talks resume, the prospects for finding promise in them is remote. For now they may be dead, but in the Middle East that’s not final.