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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)

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.

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

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    1. XYZ

      It is not true that the negotiating position of the Americans has fallen back to the Likud position. The terms of the agreement that “everyone knows” is clear to all….1967 for 1948. Israel gives up all the territories captured in the Six-Day War and the Arabs give up the demand for the return of the Palestinian refugees. This is the basis on which the Americans will conduct the negotiations, which will never go anywhere, becaus there are Israeli governments that will agree to these terms but it is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians. As they see it, continuing the present situation is prefereable to what they view as a treasonable sell-out of the Palestinian revolution.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        I agree.
        The Palestinians will never accept anything less than their oft repeated demand of ‘right of return for refugees’.
        Any agreement will ultimately fail, unless this issue is addressed.
        Settlements – borders – Jerusalem – Palestinian unity; all just red herrings to conceal the final goal, the elimination of Israel.
        And nearly half of Israels population are descended from the Jewish refugees that were Ethnically Cleansed from the Arab/Muslim lands after 1948.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Laurent Szyster

      “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.”

      And the fact that Abbas waited nine months into the settlement freeze had nothing to do with it ?

      Or did Obama then realize that Palestinian leaders don’t want a solution ?

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        Abbas wasn’t blind. After all he lives there. If there was a settlement freeze on paper, on the ground it was anything but.

        “David Ha’Ivri, spokesman for the Shomron Regional Council in the northern West Bank, said the leader of the council, Gershon Mesika, knew a freeze was coming and so approved more than 1,600 units in 2009, nearly 10 times the number that had been approved the previous year for his area.

        Moreover, data from the Central Bureau of Statistics for 2006 through 2008 show that on average about 3,000 West Bank settlement units were built in each of those years. So the 10-month freeze offered no fundamental change of pace. In addition, the statistics show, in the last quarter of 2009, more than 750 housing units were approved for West Bank settlements. That was double the number of each of the three previous quarters. So in the first half of 2010, when no more units were permitted, the pace of building remained largely unchanged.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Laurent Szyster

          Palestinians refuse to negotiate because Israelis don’t play ball, they plan when we don’t. Wow, that’s not fair !

          Abbas had his freeze. Then he waited nine months into it, just to ask for another one.

          Nobody needs to do that twice to convince a US administration.

          Like any other tyrants in the region, Palestinian leaders at their best, painting everybody in a corner, not serving their people, content with their fiefdom, more wary of the next back-stab from their “brothers” than anything else, united only when scheming to get rid of people like Fayyad.

          Reply to Comment
          • Johnboy


            Laurent claimed that there was a 9 month a settlement freeze, and was when presented with FACTS that showed conclusively that the “freeze” was bogus.

            And the response was….. for Laurent to rush forward and repeat the claim, totally oblivious that it is the same claim that was just blown out of the water.

            First rule of hasbarah: if the facts don’t fit the theory then so much the worse for the facts.

            Laurent, sunshine, what’s the point? Do you *really* think that people won’t have noticed that it’s the same claim that has ALREADY been debunked?

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            Mister Szyster seems to be a kind of hasbara drone. Just after he’d asserted on +972 that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was nowhere on the European radar, the EU came out with its guidelines.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      Let them try!!!

      They need to find an intersection, probably with the necessary features of support of third parties.

      The plane is already in the air. Crashing is not a good option.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kanadi

        I think the problem here, Richard, is that you’re assuming that anyone involved is in it to “try”, rather than as a last-ditch effort to keep up ridiculous pretensions.

        Reply to Comment
        • Richard Witty

          You are not demanding that the negotiations be serious. You are urging that the negotiations not be conducted, not invested in, not determined to succeed.

          Reply to Comment
    4. aristeides

      Any plan resting on hope in the Obama administration has already failed.

      Reply to Comment
    5. These can hardly be “final status” talks, and I think all three actors (Israel, PA, US) would be better off saying so. Here is my non-telepathic summation of US logic:

      1) Gaza will join nothing. Hamas was ultimately purged from the Legislative Council and will assume that if it won elections it would again be purged. This is not what the US, EU, and Israel expected, but it is what we have.
      2) Even the West Bank remainder (whatever that is) could not intake the descendents of dispossed Palestinians. To augment potential future intake, economic development is necessary.
      3) So West Bank possession needs to be stablized, with the Paelstinian part subject to subsidized economic growth, which will entail a rather open border with Jordan and Israeli commitment to invest and buy products.
      4) As Israeli security will still dominate, some sort of civil law for business must be constructed, with Israel willing to abide its outcomes.
      5) If the West Bank really grows under such conditions, perhaps the punted ball will find Gaza/Hamas with a different attitude. Even not, a growing Bank might present new possibilities, from federation to a joint Israel/Jordan/Bank economic zone.

      Unfortunately, religious/national settler ideology will not take kindly to general civil law in the Bank. Greater Israel has only one partner, and it is neither the US nor PA. I don’t see how the present coalition can get even close to neutral as applied civil law. The settlements have changed political structure within Israel. Once useful ardents, they seem to weld policy vetos. The useful creature is no longer a servant.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Noam fails to factor in the real point. In order not to prejudice these otherwise aimless talks, Abbas has promised not to demand the status of a full-blown state for Palestine at the UN in September. Samantha Power would be very embarrassed by having to veto such a demand.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Eliza

      The latest round of talks aren’t taking place in a vacuum. It is probable that they will fail and be used by Israel to bolster its international standing whilst tightening its grip on W/B land and resources. But it is also probable that IDF/settler violence against the Palestinians will continue and there is every chance that some ‘media worthy’ event will happen; another 5 year old child detained and his father blindfolded by some teenage IDF idiots, or an activist either killed or injured. Event on the ground aren’t going to cease and I’m sure that Israel will no doubt not disappoint in its cruel and careless occupation. And so what if USA/Israel try to pin the blame on failed talks on the Palestinians – this has happened in the past and hasn’t stopped the trend of growing international support for the Palestinians. Why should it this time?

      And then there is the day after the talks fail. What does the USA do then? We don’t know to what extent, if any, the USA has quietly given the green light to the EU’s partial financial sanctions against Israeli interests in the OT but it is probable that the USA will use other means to resolve the conflict if talks fail again.

      What we do know is that the Palestinian narrative is now well established, Israel is increasingly on the nose and the USA sees the continuation of the occupation as not being in its national self interests.

      Of course the talks may be successful. But if they are not, they are just another step towards a just resolution of the conflict – even if that just be a recognition that USA brokered talks can’t do the job. Personally, I don’t think Israel is ready yet to work towards a just resolution and will not be until it feels the bite of continued BDS and the real threat of ICC action – and all of this will take time.

      Reply to Comment