Once again, Prime Minister Netanyahu is allowed to avoid Israel’s moment of truth.
When the new round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a solid framework for the process: nine months of dialogue, by the end of which the parties will need to sign a final status agreement — or at least a framework for one. Since the Israeli government refused to accept the terms of reference agreed upon in previous rounds of negotiations, the time limit was necessary in order to prevent “talks for the sake of talks,” i.e., a process that drags on forever without concrete results on the ground.
Roughly halfway through the nine-month process, it was made clear that without those terms of reference there would be no agreement. The maximum Prime Minister Netanyahu was willing to offer the Palestinians did not amount to a sovereign state and didn’t come close to something even Mahmoud Abbas could accept, let alone one Palestinians outside the West Bank could agree to.
Around this time, the idea of an American proposal for a final status agreement was first made public. In his speech at the J Street Conference in Washington last September, American envoy Martin Indyk told the crowd: “by the time you convene again in Washington next year, the leaders will have had to decide whether they are going to go for a final peace deal or not.”
Or would they? In an interview with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius this weekend, Secretary of State Kerry said that in order to suit the political needs of both leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas will be allowed to submit their reservations to the American proposal – accepting it, but not really. This, explained Kerry, will be “the only way for them to politically be able to keep the negotiations moving.” Judging from Kerry’s words, we have come very close to the “negotiations for the sake of negotiations” phase.
The terms Secretary Kerry’s teams is using to discuss the talks – as well as the American and Israeli media – are misleading. The “sides” are not equal, and not just because Israel is much more powerful than the Palestinians, or because the American mediators are way more sensitive to the needs of the Israeli side than to the Palestinians’.
The talks themselves are unequal because Israel’s leadership gains legitimacy merely by talking – Netanyahu is rising in the polls and some of the international pressure on him is being relieved. The Palestinian leadership, on the other hand, is losing credibility by continuing to talk while the occupation and colonization of the Palestinian territory persist. The Palestinian leadership, or the Palestinian people for that matter, can only gain something when Israel actually starts withdrawing from the West Bank, something that even by most optimistic accounts can only take place long after an agreement is signed – hence the Israeli tendency to continue negotiating on and on without actually delivering.
In fact, the entire dynamic around the occupation is unequal for the simple reason that it takes an Israeli decision, not a Palestinian one, to end the occupation. No matter what the Palestinians do or don’t do, no matter what international actors do or don’t do, Jerusalem will need to reach a decision in order for the occupation to end. This, by the way, is true even outside the framework of the talks; in the case of another Palestinian uprising or due to mounting international pressure – eventually, it is Israel that needs to end the occupation.
The simple, undeniable fact is that Israel has been refusing to end the occupation for almost half a century. It has not lifted martial law nor has it withdrawn from the territory.
The object of the process needs to be making Israel reach this decision. Everybody knows that.
With this in mind, I am not sure that we have taken a single step forward since the launching of the Kerry process. Every crossroads has ended up being about postponing the decision: first by allowing Netanyahu to avoid the terms of reference from previous rounds of talks, then by keeping only vague references to territorial issues, and now by providing him with a way to continue negotiating without committing.
Just like Israel “accepted” the Clinton parameters and the Road Map (while submitting reservations), it can “accept” the Kerry plan and not come any closer to its moment of truth. Clearly, this is Netanyahu’s goal.