Washington Watch: Time out to think about peace

If recognizing the Jewish state was Netanyahu’s litmus test for Palestinian seriousness to make peace, halting settlement expansion was Abbas’ measure.

US Secretary of State Kerry (R), US envoy Martin Indyk (C) with PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (L), March 3, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Kerry (R), US envoy Martin Indyk (C) with PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (L), March 3, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should be one happy fella. He is a hero to his far-right coalition partners who threatened to topple his government if he got too serious about making peace with the Palestinians.
For the second time in five years he thwarted an American-led peace initiative that neither he nor Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas wanted, and together they probably ended chances for a renewed effort before a new administration takes over in 2017, if then.
US Secretary of State John Kerry may be reluctant to admit defeat for his energetic effort to bring the two sides together, but he once again proved that we can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and the truth is neither Netanyahu nor Abbas took Kerry’s effort very seriously. Kerry says he is going to take a time out to think about what went wrong.
That was answered by an unnamed senior American official – believed to be the head of Kerry’s negotiating team, Martin Indyk –in an interview with Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot. The American official focused most of his criticism on the Israeli leadership.
The talks were “sabotaged” in several ways but “the primary sabotage came from the settlements,” the source said.
“Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government” and to allow “ministers in his government to effectively sabotage the success of the talks,” the official said. There were some 14,000 construction tenders and in addition Israel also was “expropriating land on a large scale.”
That served to convince the Palestinians that Israel does not intend to let them found a state, the source said.
Three Israeli officials were singled out as the main saboteurs. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s attack on Kerry as only looking for a Nobel prize was considered a “great insult.” Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s lawyer and relative, was appointed by the prime minister as “babysitter” for the nominal chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and “repeatedly undermined her.”
The most damaging was Housing Minister Uri Ariel, the source said. His announcement of 700 additional housing tenders just before the fourth and final prisoner release was due last month was “an intentional act of sabotage, one of many.” Netanyahu appeared to acquiesce, if not support Ariel’s actions.
Netanyahu's decision to renege on releasing the prisoners convinced Kerry “an agreement would not be reached.” But it didn’t close the door to resuming talks; that happened when Abbas decided to form a unity government with Hamas, a terror group that not only opposes peace with Israel, but the very existence of the Jewish state.
The American official called Livni “a heroine” who “fought with all of her might to promote the agreement” and probably the only minister in Netanyahu’s government who actually supported the peace process. Netanyahu had constructed his cabinet to protect him from any pressure to make peace; by deciding to go to the far Right rather than bring in centrist parties he could argue that any serious concessions to the Palestinians would bring down his government. It left little doubt that peace was not a priority for his government.
Abbas made some concessions, the source said, but not enough to satisfy Netanyahu, who “wouldn’t move more than an inch.” When Abbas felt the Israelis didn’t “appreciate” his offers, he began “shutting down, locking into his positions.”
The American official, at least as reported by Barnea, had little critical to say about Palestinian conduct that has soured the Israeli public’s attitude toward peace, including incitement, the glorification of terrorists, insistence on maximalist positions and the failure to prepare the Palestinian public for the difficult compromises essential to making peace.
Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people may not have been as much of a deal breaker as Israel portrayed it, the source said. The Americans were puzzled why Netanyahu brought it up at the outset because by pushing it so insistently he seemed to be using it to sabotage talks; they believed that Abbas’ opposition might have been tactical, something to swap at a later stage for a major concession. That may have been wishful thinking, but they never got a chance to find out.
If recognizing the Jewish state was Netanyahu’s litmus test for Palestinian seriousness to make peace, halting settlement expansion was Abbas’ measure.
Both men failed miserably, perhaps intentionally.
The Palestinians say that in Netanyahu they did not have a partner for peace, a view apparently shared by many on the American team. But Abbas himself was no candidate for the Profiles in Courage award, either. In the end, both leaders emerged from the nine-month ordeal with exactly what they probably wanted – an excuse to scuttle the talks and credible grounds for blaming the other guy.
Kerry had repeatedly said this could be the last chance to make peace. He warned that Israel has a difficult choice to make between continued occupation of 2.5 million Palestinians or being a democratic, Jewish state. His use of the incendiary word “apartheid” was a poor choice, but the warning was right on target. Most Israelis support the two-state solution, which Netanyahu pays lip service to but fails to act on, and if a peace agreement is not possible, now may be time to consider unilateral disengagement.
What next? “As of now, nothing is stopping the Palestinians from turning to the international community. The Palestinians are tired of the status quo. They will get their state in the end – whether through violence or by turning to international organizations,” said the American official.
Meanwhile, he added, “we’re taking a time-out to think and reevaluate.”
Kerry may present an American proposal or there will just be “a period of reassessment, reevaluation.”
It’s difficult to see what he can achieve when neither party is really interested.
The secretary of state has been indefatigable in his Quixotic quest but for the time being it seems the Israelis and Palestinians have decided to kick the can down the road. The trouble with that is it is a very dangerous road. But now he’ll have time to deal with some real crises.