Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: The ‘day after’ now only 6 months away

The only thing known on the peace talks at present is that the atmosphere is negative. What happens if the talks fail?

Netanyahu, Abbas 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Netanyahu, Abbas 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Three months ago, on July 29, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington to restart formal negotiations after a more than three-year hiatus. Now, one-third of the way through negotiations given a nine-month deadline, it is legitimate to ask how the talks are going.
Legitimate to ask, but difficult to find an answer – because no one is talking.
US Secretary of State John Kerry made clear at the outset of the talks he labored so intensively to restart that he would be the only one authorized to speak on their progress. The negotiations, he said, would only succeed if held far from the bright camera lights.
Only if the negotiators were not forced to play to their own domestic audience after each meeting did the talks have any chance of succeeding. Therefore, he said, he would be the only one discussing progress.
But he hasn’t really said much, beyond platitudes about the need for peace and the courage both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas showed in deciding to reengage. Even as the day by which Israel and the Palestinians are to wrap up a comprehensive agreement is fast approaching – April 29 – few really have a clue as to how the talks are going. Certainly not the public.
Israel released its second batch of terrorists this week, bringing to 52 the number freed as part of the framework for reigniting the talks. But the public – some of it traumatized by the release of cold-blooded murderers – has no real idea what it is paying for.
Not only does the public know nearly nothing about what is going on behind closed doors, it does not even know when or where those doors are being closed (a 14th round of talks was held this week), as the time and place of the meetings are not announced.
Kerry himself is expected to arrive next week to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas, but it is not clear whether he is coming because there is a crisis in the talks (he met both men in October in Europe), he wants to offer a US bridging proposal, or to just praise the sides for a job well-done.
One senior US official said in a closed-door forum this week he believed the talks had a chance of success, largely because Kerry – a longtime politician – understood the political needs of both Netanyahu and Abbas, and their requirements to take some kind of achievement back to their respective domestic audiences.
This, he said, was what enabled the relaunch of the talks back in July: both Israel and the Palestinians believing they got something. Netanyahu was pleased that the Palestinians went back to the talks after abandoning their demand for a settlement freeze, and Abbas was pleased at being able to wave the release of 104 prisoners as a major accomplishment.
But regarding what is indeed going on inside the room: complete radio silence.
DESPITE THE AMERICAN official’s upbeat appraisal, the atmosphere surrounding the talks is – to say the least – problematic.
For instance, the terrorists released by Israel late Tuesday night were greeted – predictably – with a hero’s welcome in Ramallah.
But celebrating a man who axed to death Isaac Rotenberg, 67, a Sobibor concentration camp survivor; or shot to death Tzvi Klein, 42, as he drove home with his daughter to light Hanukka candles; or murdered 23-year-old students Revital Seri and Ron Levy while hiking near Jerusalem, does little to build Israeli confidence in the Palestinian side.
As Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said this week, “Instead of condemning terrorism, they are celebrating terrorists. I would ask the Palestinians what message they are sending to us when they celebrate their murderers, when they put them on a pedestal. And what is the message they are sending to Palestinian youth if they turn these people into heroes.”
Moreover, this celebration came amid an uptick in sporadic terrorism over the last month, which killed three Israelis and wounded a number of others, including a nine-year-old girl shot in Psagot at point-blank range.
Even as the talks continue, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor wrote an angry letter this week to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemning a condolence letter Abbas wrote to the family of Mohamed Assi, allegedly the terrorist behind a bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv last November where 29 Israelis were wounded.
“With great pain we received the news of the martyr’s death, of the dear son, the late fighter Mohamed Assi, who was murdered by the killing gangs of the Occupation Army in cold blood,” Abbas wrote. “We express to all of you and to his distinguished family our sincere condolences on his passing, and stress to you that the Occupation’s crimes will not frighten our people, and that the blood of all the martyrs will not be spilled in vain.”
If the talks were going well, would Israel have announced this week – along with the plans to build units in Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs – preliminary plans to build housing units in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, beyond the security barrier and the major settlement blocs? Asked about the wisdom of announcing those plans now, while negotiations were taking place, one government official stressed they were “only” preliminary plans, but that their announcement “gives us options.”
And, indeed, with the talks entering their fourth month, both sides are casting around looking for options about what to do if they fail.
Israel Radio carried an interesting report earlier this week that Abbas had softened his opposition to an interim agreement in the event that a comprehensive agreement is not agreed upon by the end of April.
The Palestinians quickly dismissed the report, with PLO Secretary- General Yasser Abed Rabbo saying there would be no interim agreement or establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders.
Nevertheless, Israeli officials said that Israel, the Palestinians and the US were realistic enough to understand that if a comprehensive deal was not possible, somehow an “all or nothing” situation needed to be avoided.
SO WHAT DOES happen at the end of April if, as expected, the sides do not reach an agreement? One option is some kind of interim agreement, whereby Israel recognizes a Palestinian state within certain boundaries, but the major issues – Jerusalem, refugees – remains unresolved.
Another option, threatened by some, is a third intifada. Both IDF and diplomatic officials, however, believe this is relatively unlikely, largely because the economic situation in the West Bank is much better than it was a decade ago.
Additionally, among wide swaths of the Palestinian population, there is less tolerance toward the possibility of losing it all by launching yet another terrorist war on Israel.
Which leaves the most likely option: a full-court Palestinian diplomatic press to get the world to impose a solution on Israel.
Over the last 20 years, since the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians have adopted different tactics to reach their stated goals of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, with Jerusalem as its capital and a Palestinian right of return.
In 1993, Yasser Arafat, realizing the Palestinians were not getting close to those goals by hijacking planes or throwing Jews off cruise liners, opted for another tactic: negotiations. So he negotiated with Israel – the Oslo process – bringing him to Camp David in 2000.
At Camp David, he learned something telling: The most a left-wing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, was willing to give him did not meet his minimum requirements.
So he was faced with a dilemma: Did he compromise on his goals, or opt for a new tactic? He chose to employ a new tactic, and within two months of the death of Camp David, the second intifada – a terrorist war against Israel – was born.
Apparently, the reasoning was that if you can’t get from Israel what you want by negotiating, punch it in the nose with terrorism and force it to give you what you want. That, too, failed, as Israel defeated the second intifada.
This, however, moved the Palestinians back to square one. The goals remained the same, but neither negotiations nor terrorism achieved them. So along came Abbas with a different tactic: get the world to step in and impose a solution on Israel.
And this, indeed, is what he busied himself with until Kerry restarted negotiations in July: getting the world involved; waging diplomatic warfare; taking Palestinian statehood bids to the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, UNESCO, anywhere he could. He worked to create a critical international mass that would force Israel to give the Palestinians what neither negotiations nor terrorism succeeded in getting Israel to give.
And this, it is likely, is where we are headed again if an agreement is not reached by the end of April.
Abbas is already laying the groundwork, having extensively lobbied European countries last month to remain firm behind the new EU settlement guidelines, which – by barring any EU cooperation with Israeli entities in the West Bank, east Jerusalem or Golan Heights – is making a clear statement of what it thinks an Israeli-Palestinian solution should look like.
The “day after” is now only six months away, and increasingly it looks like that day – and many weeks and months after – will be spent in diplomatic battles waged all over the world.