The peace process is dead, long live the peace process

Abbas stopped a few steps short of ‘going back to the UN,’ which he committed to not doing. So where does that leave Kerry’s peace talks?

President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas at a joint press conference in Whitehall. (flickr / Cabinet Office CC)
President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas at a joint press conference in Whitehall. (flickr / Cabinet Office CC)

The peace process is dead; long live the peace process.

That was the mood Tuesday night among journalists covering the Middle East as news broke that PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was signing onto 15 international treaties – an act which he sort of said he wouldn’t do until next month.

Much of the media immediately assumed that Abbas was “going back to the UN,” or joining UN institutions, or doing something big. That he was saying, “enough is enough” about the peace process. Or that he was doing something.

The thing is, he didn’t actually do anything.

Eight months ago, as part of a package of goodwill gestures orchestrated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Abbas agreed not to join any international institutions for the following nine months – the duration Kerry set for the latest round of peace talks. In exchange, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners who have been languishing in Israeli prisons since before the start of the Oslo peace process 20 years ago.

Read +972’s full coverage of the peace process

Abbas’s dramatic announcement on Tuesday was that, in response to Israel’s failure to release the fourth and final group of prisoners, he was signing letters of accession to 15 international treaties and conventions, not UN institutions. Noticeably absent from the list of treaties was the Rome Statute, which would give Palestine access to the International Criminal Court – the nightmare scenario Israel has been talking about for years.

Nevertheless, most people assumed that Abbas had broken his deal with Israel, or rather, with Kerry.

Hours after Abbas’s announcement, Kerry was asked about the Palestinian president’s decision to go rogue, and “go to the UN.”

“No, he’s not. He is not,” the secretary responded. “Let me make it absolutely clear: None of the agencies that President Abbas signed tonight involve the UN. None of them.”

When the deal was made last year many in the media misunderstood then, too. Due to the flawed presumptions, Kerry was forced to spell out the terms of the deal in a November joint interview with Israeli and Palestinian television.

“The agreement specifically was that there would be a release of the pre-Oslo prisoners, 104, who have been in prison now for many, many years, who would be released in exchange for the Palestinian Authority not proceeding to the UN during that period of time,” he said.

But back to Abbas.

Sending a letter of accession is not the same as signing a treaty. Abbas basically asked to sign the treaties, or at most, declared his intention to sign them.

In other words, Abbas didn’t actually do anything, certainly not blow up the peace process.

In an attempt to tone down the overeager analyses of what happened yesterday, the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department sent out a Q&A making very clear that the negotiations are not over.

In fact, they used those very words.

“No, this does not mean that negotiations process is over,” the document stated, adding, “we remained committed to the negotiations process and supported US efforts.”

So if nothing changed, what changed?

Abbas may not have done anything, but he did say something; and he said it loud and clear.

The message Abbas delivered Tuesday – and it may be significant that he delivered while wearing his PLO chairman hat and not that of the PA president – is that he will keep playing Kerry’s game, but he’s not playing nice anymore. He won’t break his commitments, but he’ll push their boundaries.

Although Abbas has built his entire contemporary political career on the idea of nonviolently seeking a two-state solution, primarily through negotiations with Israel, he probably doesn’t believe it will succeed any more than Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Khaled Mashaal or Sheldon Adelson.

Make no mistake, Abbas will “go back to the UN” soon. When the current round of negotiations he is committed to are over – which could be later this month or at the end of this year, depending on if talks are extended – he will have to do something. But he hasn’t yet.

And so we’re left with an absurd situation in which Israel and Palestine both remain committed to peace talks in which neither side is talking to each other.

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