Diplomacy: Searching for a realistic formula to restart peace negotiations

Kerry wants more talks; Abbas wants "Palestine" without peace; Netanyahu says "Arab world first." Six months after breakdown of negotiations, everyone is grasping at straws.

US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo this week. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Cairo this week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The diplomatic process with the Palestinians is stuck, and – judging by recent comments by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – no one has a realistic idea about how to get it unstuck.
First, Kerry.
The top US diplomat, with a track record of awkward statements about Israel that later need explaining by his spokespeople so everyone really understands what he meant, struck again recently.
In a speech in Washington last Thursday on the occasion of Id al-Adha, Kerry left the distinct impression on many who heard his words that he was connecting a failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to the rise of Islamic State.
Not at all, his spokesman explained a day later: “He did not make a linkage between Israel and the growth of Islamic State, period.”
But that was not the statement which indicated Kerry has no real playbook on how to move the diplomatic process forward. This became clear on Wednesday in Berlin, when he was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian issue during a press conference alongside German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
After stressing his position that “with each new settlement in the West Bank specifically, there is a growing challenge to what we call the peace map,” Kerry repeated boilerplate comments about both sides needing and deserving peace.
“My hope,” he said, “is that it will be possible to get back to a negotiating table because that is the only way to resolve the issues that stand in front of us. The current situation – the status quo – is unsustainable. President Obama said that in his UN speech; I have said that many times. I think most people understand that in order to avoid the challenges of a binational state and the challenges of further deterioration, it is important to try to find a way to negotiate.”
In other words, what was is what will be.
Even though Israelis and Palestinians – working along the Oslo parameters – have negotiated intermittently for 20 years and come up with nothing, Kerry still believes in the magic formula that the gaps on issues of borders and security and refugees and Jerusalem and recognition can be narrowed in direct talks. He ignores the unpleasant fact that after thousands upon thousands of hours of talks, the gaps remain extremely wide, and the trust needed to bridge them much too narrow.
Kerry said in Berlin, “We’re best when we try to work quietly at that [finding a way to negotiate]. And that’s what we’re doing now, and we will continue those efforts, and obviously we understand the urgency of it.”
The problem is that those quiet efforts are in fact so quiet that many people are simply unaware of them, sending them scampering in search of a solution in other directions.
A senior European official told The Jerusalem Post this week, relating to a European idea lambasted by Israel to negotiate with it over “red lines” in the West Bank, that these types of ideas are born of many different elements, including impatience with Jerusalem, the lack of peace talks and “no American leadership.”
This lack of leadership from Washington motivated the Europeans to float a plan reported this week, whereby they would like to negotiate with Israel over what it can and cannot do over the Green Line.
This fueled concern in Jerusalem that if Israel were to agree to this and then cross one of those “lines,” it would be hit with European sanctions.
This proposed European formula dovetails with Abbas’s own plan: getting the world to impose a solution on Israel.
For some time, the assessment in Israel has been that Abbas has given up on believing in the efficacy of the talks, and does not think that by talking to Israel he will get it to make the concessions that meet his minimal goals. So if you can’t get what you want through talks, or through terror –as the second intifada showed – then a third tactic is needed: getting the world to foist a solution on Israel.
But this approach, like the Kerry dream of a solution agreed upon by the sides around the negotiation table, is not grounded in reality.
All the recognition of “Palestine” by Swedish governments and British parliaments in the world are not going to force Israel to withdraw, if it feels that to do so would endanger its security. And, following the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the need for Operation Protective Edge in 2014, many people think just that.
Even after November’s midterm election in the US, and even with all the tension between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, chances that the US would ever allow a binding resolution pass the UN Security Council compelling Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines against its wishes are slim indeed. Which means Abbas’s efforts are bound to fail.
Isolating Israel, taking Israel to the International Criminal Court, getting some academics to boycott their Israeli counterparts – this is all bad and bothersome and annoying, but it will not force the country to do that which it feels will place it at risk. And with the Middle East crumbling before their eyes, and the precedent of the Gaza withdrawal still in the nation’s collective memory, a not-insignificant part of the nation believes that such a withdrawal would indeed put their security at risk.
While in the past, the appraisals in Jerusalem were that Abbas was not interested in talks, his recent speeches – including his “Israel is committing genocide” speech at the UN last month, and his call Friday on Palestinians to prevent Jews from desecrating the Temple Mount – have led to an updated assessment: he wants a state, without peace. “Our analysis of Abbas’s game plan now is that he wants ‘Palestine without peace,’” one official said.
“He wants to divorce the establishment of a Palestinian state from ending the conflict.
He is saying, ‘We have a right to declare our state, and it is not connected with the peace process.’ He is saying, ‘We have a right to the state, and negotiations with Israel are irrelevant. We want a state, and peace is a separate issue.’” According to the official, this is an important conceptual shift. If in the past the idea was that a Palestinian state with Israel would also mean peace, now the assessments in Jerusalem are that he wants the state, but that his strident rhetoric indicates he is not interested in the peace.
While trying to get international recognition for Palestinian statehood, the official pointed out, Abbas is now abstaining from using the language of reconciliation, and is increasingly using the language of militancy and maximalist demands.
The reason for this “Palestine without peace” approach is simple. If Abbas can get a state without negotiations – which would mean there is no peace deal – then there will be no need for the Palestinians to have to make the wide-ranging concessions Israel demands of them around the negotiating table.
The conclusions being drawn in Jerusalem from this assessment are that Abbas is not at all interested in returning to talks, and that those pressing for a formula to somehow restart the negotiations would do well to keep that in mind.
Which leads to Netanyahu’s path for getting the process unstuck, a path that looks as unrealistic as those being pushed forward by Kerry and Abbas: the Arab world first.
According to this approach, which he articulated clearly during his UN speech last month, the paradigm for peace needs to be reversed: instead of negotiating a peace deal with the Palestinians, which will then lead to a comprehensive deal with the Arab world, reverse the order.
First reach accommodation with the Arab world, which will then push and prod and cajole and encourage the Palestinians to eventually make their own deal with Israel.
And the reason this may be possible, Netanyahu said in the UN, is because “after decades of seeing Israel as their enemy, leading states in the Arab world increasingly recognize that together, we and they face many of the same dangers, and principally, this means a nuclear-armed Iran and militant Islamist movements gaining ground in the Sunni world.”
Netanyahu continued: “Many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world.
But these days, I think it may work the other way around, namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli- Palestinian peace. And therefore, to achieve that peace, we must look not only to Jerusalem and Ramallah but also to Cairo, to Amman, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and elsewhere.”
Sounds wonderful. The only problem is that it does not seems to have any traction on the ground, as the Arab world is not chomping at the bit. Discreet security and intelligence cooperation at the governmental level is one thing, but public cooperation with Israel that could open up diplomatic avenues which might eventually include an agreement with the Palestinian Authority is something else entirely.
To hear Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi earlier this month push the 2002 Saudi peace initiative – which places reconciliation with the Palestinians first, and only then wider peace with the Arab world – is not to discern any change of paradigm.
And to hear Jordan’s King Abdullah II talk this week of Israel killing Palestinians without compunction does not bespeak of an evolving attitude toward the Jewish state. “If we, as a Jordanian state in cooperation with an Arab and Islamic coalition, are fighting extremism within Islam, and the Israelis are killing our people in Gaza and Jerusalem every five minutes, then this is a problem,” he said on Monday.
And those are two leaders with whom Israeli cooperates, and cooperates closely – but primarily only far from the public eye.
And as far as the Arab publics are concerned, the Saudi MBC-TV network – as the Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh wrote earlier this month – was forced to apologize to its millions of viewers after using the name Israel, not Palestine, on an illustrative map for the popular Arab Idol singing contest.
The name Israel appeared because two of the contestants were Israeli Arabs.
An uproar ensued at the “indiscretion,” and the network folded, saying the use of “Israel” was the result of a “technical error.” This does little to strengthen Netanyahu’s argument that a confluence of common interests is now bringing about a greater understanding in the Arab world toward the Jewish state.
Netanyahu’s paradigm of cooperation and collaboration and rapprochement with the Arab world as the key to peace with the Palestinians seems as realistic as Abbas’s belief that a solution can be imposed on Israel, or Kerry’s apparent belief that if you just bang hard enough and long enough on the rock of negotiations, then a river of peace will burst forth.
Still wanted: A realistic approach.