They were carefully structured to try to avoid the mistakes of the past. They are being carried out under conditions of strict secrecy, negotiating difficult compromises to achieve a final status deal. There was still no progress by last week, and after three months of fruitless negotiations, the political strain on both sides was beginning to show.
Meeting with Netanyahu last Wednesday, in his seventh visit to the region this year, Kerry offered words of encouragement to both sides, but it didn’t seem to help. Complaints are rising. The future of the talks is at risk, so Kerry decided to shake them up with a bold and provocative statement, condemning the West Bank settlements and accusing Israel of stealing Palestinian land.
Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of “continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to . . . run away from the historic decisions that are needed to make a genuine peace.”
After meeting later with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Bais Lechem, Kerry felt obliged to say “unequivocally that President Abbas is 100 percent committed to these talks” and was willing to compromise “in an effort to find a fair and just peace.” Just two days earlier, Abbas said publicly that the atmosphere in the negotiations had soured and that “the situation is likely to explode soon.”
In response to Abbas’ complaints about Israel’s latest new housing construction announcements, which had been arranged by agreement with both sides in advance in exchange for Israel’s release of imprisoned terrorists, Kerry said, “the Palestinians believe that the settlements are illegal. The United States has said that . . . the settlements are not helpful and are illegitimate.”
US officials understand that most of the announcements were about housing projects that have been in the works for years, and that many of them will never be built if the peace talks are allowed to reach a successful conclusion on schedule.
Nevertheless, to give Abbas additional cover, Kerry said that he wanted “to make it extremely clear that at no time did the Palestinians in any way agree, as a matter of going to the talks, that they somehow condone or accept the settlements,” and that the US wants Israeli West Bank and Yerushalayim construction to be “limited as much as possible” during the talks.
Everyone familiar with Kerry’s efforts to get the talks started knew that statement was a politically useful “white lie.” But that did not satisfy Abbas.
KERRY WARNS ISRAEL OF ISOLATION
The next day, speaking at a press conference in Amman with Abbas, and Jordanian King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Kerry dropped his pretense of strict impartiality between the two sides for the first time. He voiced a much harsher indictment of Israel’s settlement policy and issued dire warnings to Israel’s leaders and people if they do not agree to the Palestinian demands.
“I believe that if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of de-legitimization of Israel that’s been taking place in an international basis,” Kerry said in a statement that was televised on both Israeli and Palestinian television.
“If we don’t resolve the question of settlements and the question of who lives where and how and what rights they have, if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a [Palestinian] leadership that is committed to nonviolence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence,” the Secretary of State declared, placing him squarely behind the Palestinian demands for more Israeli concessions to keep the peace talks from collapsing.
THE DEAL THAT GOT THE TALKS STARTED
Until that point, Kerry had been careful to give both sides a strong incentive to go forward and avoid letting the talks get bogged down, which is how all previous attempts to revive the talks have ended.
At the outset, Kerry discretely negotiated a trade off giving each side something it wanted, on condition that the talks would continue. For the Palestinians, it was the staggered release of a total of 104 of the most notorious terrorists being held in Israeli prisons. In return, the US and the Palestinians understood that Israel would announce new housing projects in the West Bank and Yerushalayim, with minimal criticism from the State Department and the international community.
It seemed to work fairly well until a couple of weeks ago, when the Palestinians, after greeting released prisoners as returning heroes then broke the agreement, bitterly complaining about the Israeli construction announcement, and threatened to walk out of the talks, without ever having engaged Israel in serious negotiations over the issues which had been put on the table.
It was the first real crisis in the new round of negotiations, which had proceeded through 15 meetings over a period of 3 months, without making any progress toward a mutually acceptable compromise agreement.
KERRY’S CALCULATED RISK
Kerry coming out so strongly on the Palestinian side may have been a calculated diplomatic risk. The White House probably believes that as angry as Israeli leaders might be at Kerry for publicly taking sides against them, they still would not risk an open break with the United States, whose support is still essential to Israel militarily and diplomatically. On the other hand, Kerry’s open support for the Palestinian cause could boomerang, as Obama’s public demands that Israel halt construction in the West Bank and Yerushalayim did in 2009. It only raised unrealistic Palestinian expectations of obtaining more Israeli concessions, in the mistaken belief that Obama could and would bend Israeli leaders to his will, without Arabs having to make any concessions to Israel’s demands.
Kerry’s statement presents a political problem for Netanyahu. He risked alienating his right wing base and infuriating the organizations of family members of terrorist victims by agreeing to revive the talks. Netanyahu is now open to criticism that he endangered the future of the West Bank settlements and freed unrepentant terrorists who have committed monstrous crimes, with no progress toward a peace agreement to show for it.
While agreeing to revive the talks and keep them going for three months earned Netanyahu some good will from Obama and Kerry, that has not been worth much to Israelis already dissatisfied with US policies in the region, including its hostility to the new regime in Egypt, the weakness Obama portrayed in failing to punish Assad for the warfare crimes he committed in Syria, and, most of all, the failure by Obama to keep his promise to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
POLITICAL SUPPORT FOR THE TALKS WAS FRAYING
Within Israel, support for the political deal which allowed the peace talks to resume is starting to fray. Settlement advocates were beginning to say that they would rather defer building more houses if that meant that more terrorists would be kept in jail, where they belong.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians have even threatened to abandon negotiations again and take their case to the UN and other international bodies in a renewed effort to delegitimize Israel.
Netanyahu had told Kerry last week that he needed to “steer [the Palestinians] back to a place where we could achieve the historical peace that we seek.” Kerry’s initial response was to praise both sides for their “good faith,” and said he was “very confident” the negotiations would succeed. But that confidence proved to be short lived. Instead of continuing to try to encourage both sides, he resorted to harsh, one-sided threats against Israel, while asking nothing from the stubbornly immovable Palestinians.
Before the full impact of Kerry’s pro-Palestinian statements took full effect, he was called away to the Geneva negotiations with Iran. Some saw Kerry’s surprisingly strong criticism of Israel as a slap in the face of Netanyahu personally, and at Israel’s policies since the Oslo peace process began 20 years ago.
NETANYAHU’S GENEROUS OPENING NEGOTIATING OFFER
Reportedly, Netanyahu’s opening position in the peace talks contained significant territorial concessions to the Palestinians, angering many settlement supporters. He reportedly called for the new border to coincide with the West Bank security fence, abandoning almost all of the established settlements beyond it to the east. His main security demand was the retention of an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, to provide strategic depth as a precaution against a possible Arab invasion of Israel’s population centers from the east.
In effect, Kerry accused Israel of stealing the Palestinians’ land. “How, if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace, and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in a place that will eventually be Palestine? So it sends a message that perhaps you’re not really serious.”
Kerry blamed Israeli voters for supporting the government’s settlement policy for the past 40 years, and for living in a bubble, unaware that the rest of the world disapproves of those policies and sees the settlements as illegitimate.
KERRY ENDORSES THE BIG ARAB LIE
In effect, Kerry was endorsing the big lie that the Arabs and their liberal, anti-Israel supporters have been spreading since the Six Day War, namely that the West Bank had been Palestinian land. In fact, since Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, sovereignty over the West Bank and Yerushalayim was never determined under international treaty and law. After it was conquered by Israel in 1967, the Arabs consistently refused to negotiate the issue. As a result, the relevant UN Security Council resolutions passed at the end of the 1967 and 1973 wars do not define the extent of the envisioned Israeli withdrawal from its occupation of the West Bank and how the land would ultimately be divided.
Kerry said that stationing the Israeli army “perpetually” along the Jordan River to deter an invasion from its enemies to the east was untenable. He came perilously close to empathizing with a renewal of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel in the West Bank and the replacement of the Palestinian Authority with a more openly hostile entity.
KERRY DEMANDS NO ACCOUNTABILITY FOR THE PALESTINIANS
Kerry’s statement lacked any attempt at balance. He ignored the decades of Palestinian terrorist attacks, two intifadas, the relentless anti-Israel incitement by Palestinian leaders, the Hamas takeover of Gaza and its continuing rocket attacks aimed at Israel’s civilian population centers.
Kerry also ignored the consensus opinion that without the Israeli army’s continued presence in the West Bank, Hamas would long ago have taken over the West Bank and swept Abbas aside the way they did in Gaza in 2007.
Kerry warned the Israeli people that the only “alternative to getting back to the talks [by making more concessions to Palestinian demands] is the potential of chaos. I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?” he asked rhetorically.
He also criticized those who have accepted the diplomatic stalemate of the past 20 years. “I know there are people who have grown used to this. And particularly in Israel. Israel says, ‘Oh, we feel safe today. We have the [West Bank security] wall, we’re not in a day-to-day conflict, we’re doing pretty well economically.’
“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Kerry said. “Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or next year’s. Because if we don’t resolve this issue, the Arab world, the Palestinians, neighbors, others, are going to begin again to push in a different way.”
IGNORING THE REALITIES OF THE CONFLICT
Kerry spoke as if the Israeli government could make peace with the Palestinians any time it wants to, ignoring the impractical Arab demands such as the “right of return” for all the descendants of the original Palestinian refugees who left their home 65 years ago which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Kerry also ignores that Israel is still technically in a state of war, and faces enemies on its borders on the north and south still dedicated to its destruction, and that even the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority leadership refuses to recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish homeland.
Udi Segal, the Israeli news reporter questioning Kerry in the Amman news conference raised the issue of Palestinian responsibility.
“How do you think a picture of Mahmoud Abbas . . . hugging murderers who killed children 20 or 30 years ago and say that they’re heroes of the Palestinian people – what kind of message do you think this is sent about peace process or peace atmosphere to the Israeli people?
Kerry responded that “It’s very difficult. I have no illusions,” but continued that the only alternative to more Israeli concessions in the peace talks is another reign of Palestinian terror.
KERRY STILL PUSHING FOR FINAL STATUS SOLUTIONS
Despite this, Kerry said that he remains committed to meeting his original nine-month negotiating deadline for resolving all the “final status” issues, including the competing claims to sovereignty over Yerushalayim, Israel’s security need, arranging land swaps to resolve the future status of the West Bank settlements, and drawing the borders defining the long-sought “two-state solution.”
Kerry also discouraged those who say that trying to resolve the final status issues is too ambitious a goal. “An interim agreement, only if it embraces the concept of the final status, might be a step along the way,” Kerry said. “But you cannot just do an interim agreement and pretend you’re dealing with the problem. We’ve been there before. . . . If you leave the main issues hanging out there, mischief makers” will ensure that “bad things will happen.”
He concluded that: “It’s imperative that we keep final status [as the goal] and settle this before it can’t be settled.”
While admitting that the talks now seem to be stalled, he claimed, “we made significant progress in a couple of areas.” Kerry declined to give any details, citing the rule he set at the beginning of the talks not to discuss the specifics of the negotiations in public.
WHAT KIND OF PROPOSAL CAN WE EXPECT FROM KERRY NOW?
Previously, Kerry had denied Israeli news reports that the US would present its own peace plan and take a more direct role in mediating the talks if the current deadlock is not broken by January. Kerry carefully said that no such plan exists “at this time,” giving himself plenty of wiggle room to change his mind later.
Given Kerry’s pro-Palestinian declarations in Amman, and his warnings to Israeli leaders, it can be anticipated that any US proposal he would present to the negotiators in January would be heavily weighted against Israeli interests.
BROKEN PROMISES ON IRAN
Kerry spent some of his time in Israel trying to reassure Netanyahu that the US would not accept a “partial deal” in the nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva.
Kerry had delivered the same message earlier in his trip when he met with the leaders of Saudi Arabia who share Israel’s deep concerns over a nuclear armed Iran.
“Our goal is an Iran that has only a peaceful nuclear program,” Kerry told Netanyahu. “As I have said many times, no deal is better than a bad deal. We will not make a bad deal, if a deal can be made at all.”
At a meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Kerry insisted that US eyes were “wide open” in its talks with Iran.
However, later in the week, Kerry failed to live up to that promise, and was willing to accept a dangerous “freeze” which would have allowed Iran to continue most of its nuclear activities while relieving some of the sanctions which finally forced them back to the negotiating table.
Fortunately, the French rose to the occasion in Geneva, demanding that Iran halt its key efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which the Iranians, in the end, were unwilling to do.
In reality, the Geneva talks with Iran have no direct connection to the peace talks with the Palestinians, but diplomatically, there is a linkage which Israel’s leaders cannot ignore. Israel’s response to Kerry’s demands for fresh concessions to the Palestinians and his condemnation of the communities which are home to more than half a million Jews the West Bank and East Yerushalayim, must be weighed carefully, against the threat of US capitulation to a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.