What I am about to present here is a theory. I have no proof of its accuracy, but all who have heard it thus far have responded that it makes sense.
On March 3, 2013, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a very stormy meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington.
Netanyahu pressured Obama on Iran, threatening that if the US did not increase sanctions against Iran that Israel would be forced to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities, even on its own. Netanyahu brought with him substantial intelligence information demonstrating that Iran had increased its enrichment program and that its hard-water plutonium reactor was advancing at a rapid pace. Obama was angry at Netanyahu for accusing the US of not taking the Iranian threat seriously enough and for not making any progress on the Palestinian track, causing headaches for the US throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The relations were quite tense.
On March 17-18, 2013, another round of the P5+1 (UN Security Council Members – US, Russia, China, UK and France + Germany) was held with the Iranians. At this meeting, the US saw that the pressure of sanctions on Iran was working and came away with the assessment that a deal could be reached with the Islamic Republic that would move it away from becoming a nuclear breakout state without military aggression.
Immediately after the March P5+1 round President Obama had his enormously successful visit in Israel. Obama was received with the kind of warmth and support president Bill Clinton had received before him.
In return he gave an outpouring of warmth and support of his own for the people of Israel and even for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
It was at the private meetings between Obama and Netanyahu that a deal was struck between the two. Obama promised Netanyahu that the US would guarantee that Iran would not become a breakout state with the capability of reaching nuclear- bomb status within months, and in exchange Netanyahu would deliver a deal with the Palestinians that would lead to the end of the occupation and Palestinian statehood.
Then enters US Secretary of State John Kerry who has to deliver the Palestinians to the table, and who begins to set up his nine-month negotiations strategy – based on the “Iran for Palestine” understanding between Obama and Netanyahu. But the Palestinians were not so easy to deliver. The Palestinians demanded the infamous prisoner release and the freeze of all settlement building before they would even consider coming to the table.
Kerry balked at the settlement freeze knowing that Netanyahu would not agree and that the last time it happened the Palestinians didn’t believe that the settlement building had stopped, Israel continued to build in east Jerusalem, and only after nine months of a 10-month freeze did the Palestinians come to the table.
He tried to offer them increased US economic aid, which they gladly accepted, but without budging on the prisoner release. So Kerry got Netanyahu to agree – to the US, not to the Palestinians – that Israel would release all of the pre-Oslo prisoners based on progress in the talks. The issue of Israeli-Arab prisoners was not fully known at this point and only became problematic when it became known that 14 of the 104 prisoners held Israeli citizenship.
What is important here is that the promise to release prisoners was made by Netanyahu to the US and not to the Palestinians.
The Israeli-Palestinian-US talks got underway in July 2013. At the table were three delegations – Israel, Palestine and the US. From July 2013 until mid-November it seemed real progress was being made. From conversations I was having with people from all three sides, I understood that the atmosphere in the room was positive and constructive. I learned that all of the core issues were on the table: borders, Jerusalem, security and refugees. The Israeli and Palestinian sides were presenting new ideas and the Americans were already putting bridging proposals on the table.
The parties also stayed committed to the US demand that there be no leaks to the press and that only the US would report to the media on the talks. During this period, I commented in my column and in lectures that the fact that the meetings were continuing – they kept scheduling additional meetings – which is not to be taken for granted because the talks could have exploded on any single issue; and because they were keeping to the no-leaks policy, I was optimistic that real progress was in fact being made. That was also the gist of the rumors most analysts and experts were hearing.
Then on November 4, 2013, the P5+1 reached an agreement with Iran. Netanyahu was angry. He felt that the interim nuclear agreement signed with Iran in November legitimized the Islamic Republic for no reason.
Netanyahu said, “Iran has given practically nothing, but gets international legitimacy.”
According to Netanyahu, the interim deal only delayed Tehran’s nuclear program by four weeks, while the Islamic Republic continues to develop more effective centrifuges that would allow it to reach a bomb faster. From Netanyahu’s position, the deal he had made with Obama (Iran for Palestine) had been breached by Obama. Netanyahu felt betrayed by Washington and also believed that he was released from the Iran for Palestine understandings.
From that time on until the end of the Kerry initiative on April 29, 2014, the Israeli-Palestinian- US talks ceased to take place. Kerry and his envoy Martin Indyk began their mission of shuttling back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem. The trilateral talks completed ended (until the final days when in a last-ditch effort Indyk brought them back to the same table – but it was too late by then).
Not only was there a breakdown in the format, the substance of the talks completely changed. Israel ceased being a constructive player in the negotiations and reverted back to its old style of negotiating – only presenting what is opposed and never offering anything to the Palestinians. No new trilateral meetings were scheduled and the parties began leaking what was happening or not happening in the negotiations – another breach in the ground rules.
The increasing animosity between Netanyahu and Obama, rooted in Israel’s dissatisfaction with the P5+1 Iran interim agreement, put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations way before they reached their end on April 29, 2014. The Americans tried to convince Netanyahu that the interim agreement with Iran was working. They said that Iran has slowed down its enrichment program. They emphasized that the verification regime in place which is independent from Iranian compliance was enabling the international inspectors to have full freedom to verify all over Iran without prior notification. They asserted that the successful verification regime would guarantee Iran’s implementation of the terms of a final agreement. Netanyahu was not buying what Obama was selling.
So here we are, summer 2014 is approaching.
There is no Israeli-Palestinian deal on the table. There is no US-Israel understanding on Iran. The Palestinians are marching forward to internal unity and accession to international organizations and conventions. Israel is preparing its plans for an attack against Iran, without US support. And the US is heating up for mid-term elections that will likely lead to the Democrats losing the Senate and Obama entering lame-duck land.
And the people of Israel need to urgently find a new leader before it’s too late.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.