Trying to satisfy Netanyahu’s political needs might result in the Americans ‘missing the moment of opportunity,’ says a former Israeli official.
The diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is at a crossroads as the American team, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, is said to be preparing an outline for a final-status agreement. President Obama will meet Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas in the coming weeks and later in the month, the American proposal will probably be made public. However, there is no official publication date and it is not clear what would such a paper might look like. Recent media reports suggest there might not even be a paper, since Kerry’s team is having such a hard time producing a document that both parties could adopt.
If the Kerry team fails to produce an agreed-upon paper, the secretary of state will be left with two alternatives: publishing a document that one or both parties might reject, or not publishing anything at all. In both cases, the negotiations might end.
The working assumption in certain Israeli political circles is that Netanyahu is already preparing for the third option – that Kerry’s team will not present a proposal at all. In such a case, the Israeli prime minister will try to blame the Palestinians for “missing an opportunity.” The Prime Minister’s Office’s line will be that the talks failed because Abbas refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, despite the fact that the U.S. and other countries now support this demand. There are indications that there is more support for Israel’s position on this matter than on other issues — certainly more than the settlements.
A couple of recent media reports suggest that Netanyahu envisions an impending breakdown in the talks. Pro-Netanyahu paper Israel Hayom writes that the Israeli prime minister will not break from his Likud Party (which is heavily populated by influential opponents of the two-state solution); an article in Maariv claims that Netanyahu made up his mind not to release the fourth and last group of prisoners set to be freed during the process if the Palestinians do not adopt the upcoming American proposal. The prisoner release is scheduled for the end of this month.
So what happened to the Kerry process? Last week I spoke to a centrist Israeli politician who took part in the highest levels of a previous round of talks. While expressing admiration for Secretary Kerry’s efforts (“Kerry is indeed obsessive, but in the most positive way,” he said), the person to whom I spoke expressed deep concern that the Americans are “about to miss this moment [of opportunity].”
Kerry has tailored his offer to Netanyahu’s political needs in recent weeks, said the former official, instead of challenging him and the Israeli public with a far-reaching offer to which the Palestinians would have had to agree. By “far reaching,” he meant making clear references to 1:1 land swaps and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. Such an offer would have forced Netanyahu to choose between the peace process and his right-wing coalition partners. In such a scenario, the government might eventually fall and we could have, for the first time, “an election on the issue,” as the official put it.
Instead, he said, Kerry has gotten all sorts of vague commitments from Bibi, which have created a sense of achievement but nothing concrete. The official estimated that the Americans are reluctant to confront Netanyahu on the Palestinian front after doing so on Iran, and to a lesser extent, on Syria. He wondered whether the attempt to prolong the negotiations might be intended to postpone the moment of decision until after the American mid-term congressional elections, when the administration will have more room for political maneuvering.
An analyst I spoke to, who also took part in a previous round of talks, agreed that the American side was overly sensitive to the political needs of the right-wing government in Jerusalem. “The Americans believed that they have Abu Mazen in their pocket and that Netanyahu is the problem. That has made them more flexible with Bibi. But now they are getting a lot of pushback from the Palestinians.” The analyst went ahead and named leading members of Kerry’s peace team, stating that while several of them are close to the Israeli side in their positions, “nobody was brought in to satisfy the Palestinians or to represent their needs.”
Both the official and the analyst estimated that President Abbas will be unwilling, and probably unable to accept the American proposal under such circumstances. (I am not sure I agree. Abbas is playing a very bad hand and has no real alternative to the negotiations or to American-European support for his leadership.)
Both people I spoke to were careful not to call the Kerry process a failure, stating that the American offer is still being debated and that many issues are still up in the air. “Much of what has been published were trial balloons,” said the analyst. “Let’s be careful not to make predictions.”
According to reports in the media, the American proposal would have included recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but make only a vague commitment to the 1967 borders and Palestinian claims for East Jerusalem. Israel will be allowed to annex the major settlements and it’s not clear whether the principle of 1:1 land swaps would be recognized. Also, Israel will not be required to recognize its responsibility for the refugee problem, and almost no refugees would be allowed to return. Additionally, recent reports suggest that the Kerry team is leaning toward a prolonged Israeli presence along the Jordan Valley.
Last week, Palestinian media outlets reported that President Abbas rejected Kerry’s proposal, going so far as to storm out of a meeting with him in Paris.
Another noteworthy angle of this particular moment has to do with the Israeli peace movement and the parliamentary opposition to Netanyahu’s government. There is strong public support for the Kerry process in the opposition at the moment, with politicians from the Left condemning settler attacks against the secretary of state and peace groups staging public campaigns in support of the Kerry initiative.
However, all indications are that Bibi was about to say “yes” to Kerry anyway, and that those who have problems with his current ideas are the Palestinians, who perceive the American team to be following Netanyahu’s lead on all central issues. As a result, there is growing concern inside the peace organizations and left-wing parties about the way their support for peace has transformed into support for Netanyahu himself.
“No Israeli politician can take a position that is more pro-Palestinian than the Americans,” explained a political strategist who worked with many peace groups and leftist politicians. “It is political suicide. Look at Meretz or Labor or Peace Now – they know what’s going on but they are very careful not to attack Kerry’s ideas.”
When there is little daylight between the Americans and Netanyahu, he concluded, “we have nothing to work with.”