Don’t cheer these peace talks

To register their recent success, Secretary of State Kerry and the Obama administration destroyed whatever was achieved in the last two decades. For the first time since the 1991 Madrid Conference, the starting point for the negotiations are the positions of the Israeli right.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Yuval Steinitz and Tzipi Livni meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem (photo: Government Press Office)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Yuval Steinitz and Tzipi Livni meet with Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem (photo: Government Press Office)

The headlines celebrating the fact that “Israelis and Palestinians are talking again” were misleading. The Palestinian Authority is no more than a regional council in a territory controlled by Israel. Since the PA is completely dependent on Israel for almost all of its functions, Israelis and Palestinians are talking all the time, including on the political level.

Envoys and ministers on behalf of Prime Minister Netanyahu, such as Yitzhak Molcho or Shimon Peres, have met with Palestinian counterparts many times in recent years, discussing issues ranging from borders to security arrangements. The Israeli demand to ignore all previous understandings and the insistence on continuing to take over more land in the West Bank through settlement construction and other projects kept the talks from moving up to the next levels, let alone reaching a final status agreement.

But the Palestinian Authority is dependent on the United States, Israel and Europe, and when the administration showed enough determination, President Abbas could not hold on to its resistance to discussing a final status agreement. Still, it should be noted that Secretary of State Kerry’s much-celebrated success did not involve any change in the actual positions of the parties, especially Israel’s. This is not 1992-1993, when the diplomatic challenge was about getting the two sides to meet. Today’s questions are about the nature of the talks, and this is where the current failure has been exposed.

The ability of the administration to take pride in launching formal peace talks come at a very high price. Since 1993, every round of talks used previous negotiations as their terms of reference. Political support for the process may have decreased on both sides, but the gap between the two parties has actually narrowed all this time. In the last decade it became clear to the Israeli mainstream that a solution would be based on the 1967 borders, and that Jerusalem would either be a joint capital or a divided one.

All along the way, Prime Minister Netanyahu presented a firm opposition to the peace process both on principle – rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state – and due to various territorial aspects. Netanyahu and his senior collation partners even rejected the Clinton Parameters (since those included ceding 94-96 percent of the West Bank and most of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians) let alone Olmert’s proposal in Annapolis.

The second Obama administration basically accepted Netanyahu’s position, allowing Israel to ignore the terms of reference for the talks and all previous rounds of negotiations. According to all reports, Kerry replaced all that was accomplished in the past with “a creative solution:” the U.S. was to present some aspects of the terms of reference in a statement ahead of the talks (not even all of them), and Israel was allowed to ignore the American position. Whatever was done in the last two decades is gone. For the first time since Madrid 1991, the Israeli right is dictating the starting point for the negotiations.

This diplomatic withdrawal (“collapse” might be a more apt term) had one major reason: the Obama administration’s failure to stand up to the so-called “pro-Israeli” forces in American politics, from AIPAC to, GOP’s hawks, to leading democratic legislators. The last push was aided by a whole array of “peace organizations” that let their desperation for political achievements cloud their judgment, ending up with them cheering an administration that didn’t do much more than force the Palestinians to accept the Israeli right’s ideas for the process. As Molad’s Michael Menkin wrote just a few months ago, the honest move by “the peace camp” is to oppose negotiations on those terms.

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In the current government’s eyes, the talks are first and foremost a tool to retain international legitimacy and postpone further measures against the occupation to an indefinite future – a period of time in which more “facts on the ground” can be established. This is no secret. Israeli officials have been saying for years that while there is no chance for an agreement, “talks must be resumed.”

The resumption of the talks have already served Prime Minister Netanyahu well – it has narrowed the effect of the internal pressure caused by the European Union’s recent moves against the settlements, and has provided the government with a powerful argument against taking further steps that would – in the words of Yair Lapid’s recent op-ed in the Times – only “delay the peace process.”

The centrists in Netanyahu’s government – Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who promised to leave the coalition if talks are not resumed – can now hold on to their cabinet positions. The coalition is secured. Netanayhu doesn’t even have to break up with the settlers like he did when he talked to Arafat in the 90s. Since Israel paid no price for its recent achievements, it only makes sense for Naftali Bennett and his allies to stay in the government, where they can deploy strategic mines that would destroy the process if it is ever to go anywhere.

The recent “referendum law” is only the first of such initiatives; the settlers’ control of the Ministry of Housing and their representation in the Defense Ministry ideally position them to take all kinds of steps that would destroy whatever is left of the Palestinian leadership’s credibility. Netanyahu knows that, and there is nothing more telling than the fact that he is entering talks with such a hawkish coalition.

I expect the Israeli government to try and keep the talks going on for as long as possible, for the reason stated above. At one point or another, the Palestinians might be presented with yet another “generous offer” from the Israeli side, accompanied with the usual take-it-or-leave-it threat. This has been the American-Israeli tactic since Oslo II (Only the first Oslo agreement in 1993, with all its faults, stands out as the outcome of relatively equal negotiations; it is not surprising that it is the round that saw the least of the American involvement). And if the Palestinians choose to reject the offer, they will be blamed again for missing every opportunity for peace. Once more, the occupation will be their own fault.

The only hope lies in the Obama administration setting up clear timetables for the process and forcing the Israeli government to pay with actual steps on the ground – not “gestures” but actions which have to do with achieving the solution itself – for the legitimacy it earns from the talks. The government will likely fall as a result, and a better equipped coalition will need to follow up with the process – one that is determined to end the occupation and views the peace process only as means to reach that goal, rather than an end by itself. Given the nature of the American involvement in the process thus far, this is not the most likely scenario.

Related:
A recipe for diplomatic collapse: How U.S. envoys (and others) are making their own peace missions fail
Referendum on peace agreement just might pass
The Israeli negotiator who thinks the two-state solution is still possible