Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

What really happened in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that broke down in April?

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One of the most persistent myths, and one which was repeatedly hammered before, during and after the recent Gaza war by some supposedly knowledgeable commentators, was the accusation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ultimately to blame for the war's outbreak because he has stymied all efforts at establishing a Palestinian state.

For instance, the Economist, which makes a habit of reinforcing European conventional wisdom, wrote in July that, "the catastrophe befalling Gaza stems from the refusal of Israel to negotiate in good faith."

In Australia, the Fairfax papers all published an opinion piece by Peter George saying, among many other misinformed claims deconstructed by Ahron Shapiro in an AIJAC blog that, "Netanyahu has determinedly blocked Palestinian aspirations for nationhood."

Numerous other pieces in Australia have insisted Netanyahu had demonstrated during these talks that he was disinterested in peace (see for instance, articles by Gwynne Dyer and Amin Saikal, also both published by Fairfax papers)

So, it is important to actually test the veracity of the allegation that Netanyahu is the roadblock to peace. The main evidence being put forward to support this view - apart from raw prejudice - is an off-the-record leak from a "senior US official" widely believed to have been former US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk. For instance, Saikal directly cites Indyk in his piece.

Yet if one looks at the totality of the evidence, including from Indyk himself, rather than that one quote, the picture being painted of Israeli intransigence spoiling peace hopes does not hold water.

For instance, in a televised public interview with the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in early July, Indyk said:

"Netanyahu moved to the zone of possible agreement. I saw him sweating bullets to find a way to reach an agreement."

Why the contradiction?

First of all, even assuming the first statement was Indyk's, it was made anonymously to an Israeli newspaper, and thus was likely intended for an Israeli audience - with the aim of encouraging Israeli public opinion to demand a change of policy on settlements and peacemaking. It seems clear that in its second term, the US Administration has repeatedly made influencing Israeli public opinion on these issues a key goal - thus, during his visit to Israel in 2013, Obama chose to speak to young Israeli students, asking Israelis to put themselves in the shoes of Palestinians, rather than giving the traditional speech to the Israeli Knesset. See also here.

Moreover, Indyk is known to have long had a very poor relationship with Netanyahu going back to the late 1990s and the Clinton Administration's peace efforts when Netanyahu was in his first term from 1996-1999. Indeed, Indyk was criticised as a poor choice for American Middle East peace envoy precisely because of his negative relationship with the Israeli PM. His personal feelings may have coloured that particular anonymous quote, if indeed he was the source.

Finally, it bears remembering the Obama Administration's long-standing policy is predicated on the belief that hammering Israel in public made the PA more amenable to peace. History has subsequently proven this policy as a failure, and one that, as this previous blog post recalled, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opposed. Yet Indyk may, at that stage, have been hoping to lure the Palestinians back to negotiations by being tough on Israel.

In any case, the truth is that enough leaks have emerged since the talks broke down in March to make it clear that it is the second Indyk quote that is supported by the evidence. Indeed, it would appear hard for anyone who has knowledgably reviewed all the evidence to deny that Netanyahu was quite prepared to cut a deal that would have led to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The most substantive analysis of the nine months talks is a 28-page article in the New Republic by Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon who based their report on interviews with 100 Israelis, Palestinians and Americans connected to the talks.

Birnbaum and Tibon report that Indyk repeatedly stressed to the Palestinians during their moments of frustration that Netanyahu was willing to make peace, that "I can tell you that he's changing...He's moving."

The article makes it clear that for Netanyahu, the uppermost principle guiding his worldview is not, as many ill-informed critics might claim, any need to retain settlements, but the need to ensure Israeli security concerns were met in any peace deal. This seems logical enough - any Israeli government that cannot guarantee security will not maintain voter support, with good reason.

However, that the core of Israel's leadership was serious and committed to peacemaking during the negotiations was clear.

According to Birnbaum and Tibon, proposals to ensure Israel maintained a security presence in the vital Jordan Valley were discussed in early December, and were endorsed by "most of Israel's security brass."

Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was making conciliatory noises, they write:

'Israel will not get more than it is getting from Kerry,' he said publicly. Netanyahu saw it as a basis for discussion.

Moreover, although there was public opposition in the Coalition government from the Jewish Home party's Naftali Bennett in late January 2014, Netanyahu was "positively blasé" about threats to his coalition from Bennett and his party. Netanyahu let it be known that he could count on the 15 votes of the Labor MKs should Bennett abandon the government.

Indeed, there was genuine panic at this possible outcome on the Israeli right:

On the hard right, settler leaders and ministers were in a panic - a Palestinian state was about to be born because of a personal feud.

In terms of the substance of crafting a peace deal, the writers note that the issues were evolving and not bogged down:

"by the end of January, in regular videoconferences and phone calls, Netanyahu and Kerry had moved well past security and on to borders and other issues."

Even seemingly radioactive topics such as Palestinian refugees were worked on and subject to detailed proposals, to the point that by late January 2014, Netanyahu was accepting "once-unthinkable language" in what was now Kerry's framework outline.

Even on Jerusalem, although Netanyahu "rejected any explicit mention of the formula Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert had accepted for Jerusalem (Jewish neighborhoods for Israel; Arab neighborhoods for Palestine") he was prepared to accept "vague wording that spoke of ‘Palestinian aspirations' for a capital in the holy city." Publicly, "vows to keep [the city] united had disappeared from his speeches."

Summing up where Netanyahu was in the negotiations just past the halfway mark, Birnbaum and Tibon write:

The more dramatic Netanyahu concession, however, concerned borders. After decades of railing against any mention of the 1967 lines, Netanyahu accepted that "[t]he new secure and recognized border between Israel and Palestine will be negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps." Said one Israeli official: "If the Israeli public knew back in February that Netanyahu agreed to include this sentence in the framework, it would have created a political earthquake."

Moreover, "in December, Finance Minister Yair Lapid had asked Netanyahu what the odds were for achieving a framework. He was surprised at Netanyahu's relative optimism. "Forty-sixty," the prime minister had said. Following the Bennett fiasco, Lapid asked again. After a moment's pause, the answer came back: "Sixty-forty."
And what do we know about the Palestinian Authority?

Again, Indyk's interview with Goldberg provides important insight:

"We tried to get Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to the zone of possible agreement but we were surprised to learn he had shut down. We were ready to go beyond policy positions the U.S. had taken on the core issues to bridge the gaps and resolve it, and therefore there was something in it for him - and he didn't answer us. Abbas [effectively] checked out of the talks in mid-February."

Unfortunately the New Republic article includes scant detail of the Palestinian concessions made, if any, only what they opposed, which, as is well known, was Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. What is apparent though is how early on in the process the Palestinians negotiators' interest in securing a deal dissolved - even as the Israeli side made a series of concessions toward Palestinian demands.

A mere three months into the process, in early October 2013, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who rivals Abbas for the number of times he has threatened to resign his post, had already threatened to submit applications for membership to 15 UN agencies, and sign a unity deal with Hamas; moves understood by all parties as the diplomatic equivalent of a declaration of war.

(These were, of course, steps that the PA eventually took in late-March which formally announced the end of the negotiating process.)

In the end, the nominal event triggering the process' collapse was the Israeli government's opposition to releasing the last tranche of Palestinian prisoners - which included names of Israeli Arabs who Kerry was unauthorised by Israel to promise would be freed - when it became apparent that Abbas was going to pull the pin on the talks in any case. Furthermore, as Indyk noted, Abbas had already disengaged from the process in February so this was in fact only the formalisation of an ending to the process which had already occurred in all but name.

Indeed, a key incident revealed by Birnbaum/Tibon surrounding the prisoners' crisis came on March 17, 2014, suggesting why President Obama and his colleagues might be reluctant to now re-engage with the peace process:

At the White House, Obama tried his luck with the Palestinian leader. He reviewed the latest American proposals, some of which had been tilted in Abbas's direction. (The document would now state categorically that there would be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.) "Don't quibble with this detail or that detail," Obama said. "The occupation will end. You will get a Palestinian state. You will never have an administration as committed to that as this one." Abbas and Erekat were not impressed.
After the meeting, the Palestinian negotiator saw Susan Rice - Abbas's favorite member of the Obama administration - in the hall. "Susan," he said, "I see we've yet to succeed in making it clear to you that we Palestinians aren't stupid." Rice couldn't believe it. "You Palestinians," she told him, "can never see the fucking big picture."

Furthermore, Netanyahu's supposedly hard-line cabinet agreed to a further 400 Palestinian prisoners being released and a limited slow down in settlement construction as inducements for the talks to continue, but were met with a rejection from Abbas. This is further damning evidence of the shallowness of the argument that Israel was the impediment to peace.

Or, in other words, in an article that, on the surface, seems to hold both sides responsible for the breakdown in talks, the evidence presented actually makes it clear that the Americans know full well that Israel is not the main party to blame for a Palestinian state remaining a dream - even if they choose not to say so for various reasons. As the French say, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

- Allon Lee

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