The Israeli-Palestinian Talks Were Set Up to Fail
“The negotiations had to start with a decision to freeze settlement construction. We thought that we couldn’t achieve that because of the current makeup of the Israeli government, so we gave up,” a senior official in the Obama administration told Nahum Barnea of the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot (1) about the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. (He asked to remain anonymous.) “We didn’t realise Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government. We didn’t realise continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks. … Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this [the building of 14,000 dwellings] is also about expropriating land on a large scale.”
When asked if he was surprised to discover the Israelis didn’t really care what happened in the negotiations, he replied: “It surprised us all along the way. When [Moshe] Yaalon, your defence minister, said that the only thing [US Secretary of State John] Kerry wants is to win a Nobel Prize, the insult was great. We were doing this for you and for the Palestinians.”
Though all Barnea’s sources are anonymous, he had access to all US officials, and especially to Martin Indyk, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The main argument can be summed up as “we [the US] did not know”. They didn’t know what settlement meant; they didn’t know that the Israeli government was not interested in negotiating.
Is that credible? How, after being involved in the “peace process” for four decades, could the US, Israel’s main ally, not know? Is it possible that Kerry can have devoted so much energy to resolving this conflict — flying to the Middle East so many times, holding hundreds of hours of talks, telephone conversations and video conferences, and meeting most of the region’s leaders one-to-one — and have discovered only at this stage that the Israelis were not interested in the negotiations? The Oslo process has been dead and buried for more than a decade. More than 350,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1993. And Washington still hasn’t understood?
‘You just don’t see us’
What is going on in John Kerry’s mind? Why does he keep persevering in the face of failure? Did he really not know? The reality is that Kerry and Obama, and all their predecessors, have espoused Israel’s views so closely they are unable to see the truth, and cannot understand the Palestinians’ point of view. Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, told the Israelis: “You just don’t see us; we are like ghosts to you” (2). His remark applies equally well to the Americans. The US and Israel alike are working to an old principle: “What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is negotiable.” Israel sees the territories it conquered in 1967 as “contested territories”, and all the Palestinians’ rights as negotiable, whether they relate to East Jerusalem, the settled territories, security, refugees or water. It’s the occupied nation that has to make concessions, not the occupier. So when Israel agrees to give back 40% of the West Bank, it is able to declare it is making a painful concession that undermines its security and the rights of the “Jewish people” to Eretz Israel, the land of Israel.
This stance allows the Israelis to pile up obstacles. They demand one concession after another, and none of them is ever enough. If the Palestinians recognise the state of Israel (though Israel does not recognise Palestine), they must also recognise its Jewish character — something Israel has never asked Egypt or Jordan to do, or the Palestinians during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister (1996-99).
This time, Israel’s arrogant intransigence has drawn an irritable response from the Americans. Obama, among others, has said that the only alternative to the two-state solution is a single state in historical Palestine. Kerry warned of the danger of creating an “apartheid” system — though he has now retracted his words (3).
The US was initially pleased with the progress of the negotiations, which started in July 2013 and were scheduled to last nine months. The Palestinian Authority made a number of concessions on international legality: the demilitarisation of the future Palestinian state; an Israeli military presence on the Jordan for a period of five years, to be replaced by a US one; the transfer of the Jerusalem settlements to Israeli sovereignty; an exchange of territories that would allow 80% of the West Bank settlers to be integrated into the Israeli state; and, finally, the return of the Palestinian refugees being conditional on Israel’s agreement. No Palestinian leader has ever made as many concessions as Abbas, and it’s unlikely that any Palestinian leader will in the future.
Israel’s response to all these advances (or steps backward) was a resounding “No!” As one of Nahum Barnea’s US sources explained, “Israel presented its security needs in the West Bank: it demanded complete control over the territories. [The US never says ‘occupied territories’, in spite of UN Security Council resolution 242 of November 1967.] This told the Palestinians that … [Israel’s] control of the West Bank would continue for ever.” Yet security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has never been so close, Israel’s security never so assured — at the expense of the Palestinians, who are caged in by the division of territories, humiliated by incessant checks and regularly shot in the West Bank and Gaza; 36 Palestinians were killed in 2013, three times more than the previous year, according to human rights organisation Btselem.
A few weeks before the 29 April deadline, it became clear that Netanyahu was only playing for time. He began by going back on his promise to free a fourth group of Palestinians who had been in prison since before 1993. The Palestinian Authority responded by ratifying a number of international treaties — notably the Geneva conventions governing the obligations on occupying powers, which the Israeli government has flouted since 1967. But the PA has, for the moment, refrained from ratifying the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would make it possible to try Israeli leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC regards settlement in an occupied territory as a war crime.
When the Israeli government confirmed its intention of prolonging its control of the West Bank “for ever and ever” (Book of Daniel, 7:18), President Mahmoud Abbas, unpopular and facing strong opposition from within Fatah, decided it was time to end the division that has been weakening the Palestinian cause since 2007. The conditions were ripe on both sides. Hamas rallied to the idea, weakened by the joint blockade by Israel and the new Egyptian government; by the violent anti-Palestinian campaign orchestrated by Cairo; and facing opposition from more radical organisations within Palestine, notably Islamic Jihad and groups claiming affiliation with Al-Qaida.
On 23 April an agreement was signed for the establishment of a government of “technocrats”, to be headed by Abbas, and the holding of legislative and presidential elections within six months. The Palestine Liberation Organisation is also due to hold internal elections and admit Hamas, which has never been a member. The agreement conforms to the one signed in Cairo in 2011 and confirmed at Doha in 2012 but never implemented. It raised no strong objections in Washington and was hailed by the EU, but Israel used it as a pretext to break off negotiations that had, in any case, reached an impasse. “[Abbas] must choose. Does he want reconciliation with Hamas, or peace with Israel?” declared Netanyahu (4), who, over the preceding months had questioned Abbas’s “representativeness”, on the grounds that he did not control Gaza. Abbas replied that the future government would be made up of technocrats and independents: “[The Israelis] said: Does the government recognise Israel? I said: Of course. Does it renounce terrorism? Of course. Does it recognise international legitimacy? Of course” (5).
One could ask the same questions of Netanyahu and his government coalition, and of the fascist parties it includes, such as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which has 12 members in the Knesset (out of 120). Do they recognise an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, or the UN resolutions? Of course not.
But the prolonged suspension of the negotiations puts both the US and Israel at a disadvantage: “There’s a bigger problem threatening Israel in the immediate future. This is a very concrete threat. If Israel tries to impose economic sanctions on the Palestinians, it could boomerang,” a senior US official told Nahum Barnea. “There’s great potential for deterioration here, which could end with the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli soldiers will have to administer the lives of 2.5 million Palestinians, to their mothers’ chagrin. The donating countries will stop paying up, and the bill of $3bn a year will have to be paid by your finance ministry” (6).
Moreover, as long as the “peace process” continues, calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel are less credible (see The power to shun). It’s no accident that the German government decided, after the talks were suspended, not to subsidise Israel’s purchase of German nuclear submarines, which will cost Israeli taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars (7). And the EU, after so much procrastination and so much pandering to Israel, could impose sanctions.
One thing will never change: no matter how many violations of international law it commits, the US will stand firm behind Israel. As Martin Indyk said recently, “The US-Israel relationship has also changed in quite dramatic ways [since the October 1973 war]. Only those who know it from the inside — as I have had the privilege to do — can testify to how deep and strong are the ties that now bind our two nations. When President Obama speaks with justifiable pride about those bonds as ‘unbreakable’, he means what he says. And he knows of what he speaks” (8). Indyk explained that, unlike after the October 1973 war, when US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated an agreement between Israel, and Syria and Egypt, Obama would never suspend military relations with Tel Aviv as Richard Nixon did.
The US position still boils down to “A Palestinian state tomorrow, but not today” (9). We must accept that Washington will not bring about peace in the Middle East alone and without pressure. There will have to be strong measures and sanctions against Israel by states, and boycotts by civil society, before the Palestinians are finally able to celebrate their own “next year in Jerusalem”.
Translated by Charles Goulden.
Alain Gresh is a member of Le Monde diplomatique’s editorial team.
(3) “John Kerry denies calling Israel an ‘apartheid state’”, The Telegraph, London, 29 April 2014.
(4) Herb Keinon, “Netanyahu: Abbas must choose, peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas”, JPost.com, 23 April 2014.
(5) Interview on a Palestinian satellite television channel, 8 May 2014, published by BBC Monitoring, London, 10 May 2014.
(6) Quoted by Nahum Barnea, op cit.
(7) Barak Ravid, “Germany nixes gunboat subsidy to Israel, citing breakdown of peace talks”, Haaretz,Tel Aviv, 15 May 2014.
(8) Martin Indyk, “The Pursuit of Middle East Peace”, op cit.
This article appears in the July edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.