Netizens browsing Israeli websites these days can encounter a phone company advertisement — a smiling President Obama holding a phone receiver, his picture replaced by a smiling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Talk without limits,” the banner says. While the second Obama administration certainly has improved its communications with Netanyahu’s government, the Palestinian-Israeli talks it is trying to broker are anything but “without limits.”
These days, trying to mediate the negotiations between sour-faced representatives of two traumatized and skeptical societies is probably as exciting as standing at the podium at the State Department press briefing room, facing reporters frustrated with the lack of information about the peace process — and cliches. Ahead of the second round of talks on Wednesday in Jerusalem, the Israeli government published a list of 26 Palestinian prisoners — including those “with blood on their hands”— to be released as a confidence-building measure. At the same time, Israel’s Housing Minister Uri Ariel revealed government tenders to build about 1,200 housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“Don’t you think that the Israeli action now is a slap in the face to your efforts to try to bring the two parties together?” one of the reporters at the State Department Monday briefing wondered.
“Well, I’m not going to characterize it in those terms,” Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman of the Department of State replied. “We have serious concerns and we’ve raised those with the government of Israel. The secretary has stressed that both sides should refrain from taking actions that could possibly undermine trust.”
But she also stressed this is one of the “difficult issues” both sides need to address directly at the negotiations table. Besides, she reminded reporters, “the Israeli government is also taking a very difficult but necessary step in part of the peace negotiations to release a number of prisoners as well. … We do believe that it’s a positive step forward and that it shows that the government of Israel is investing in the success of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace.”
Aaron David Miller, former negotiator and currently a vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the renewed tensions this week over the release of Palestinian prisoners and the approval of new housing units in settlements are not a great start for talks — but it’s also not a deal breaker.
“That’s the way Netanyahu operates — it’s a pattern, one step forward and two back,” he said. “There is nothing new here, he behaved this way during the Hebron protocol in 1997. In the end, it alone will not be determinative in trying to decide whether the negotiations will fail or succeed. Settlement activity is not helpful, but it’s not the core issue. On the key issues — Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees and the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people — to me it’s almost unimaginable, a conflict-ending agreement that the Israeli prime minister and their respective parliaments will accept, with no more claims and no more irredenta to be pursued. So the real question for Secretary Kerry is: Short of that, what is possible. And that’s something I find very difficult to answer, because border and security first — as compelling as it is — this is a tough issue.”
The ability to remain discreet is not necessarily the strongest trait of negotiators in the Middle East — but Secretary Kerry himself, his team and the U.S. administration’s spokespeople repeatedly urge reporters not to trust any rumors or leaks about the process, unless it comes from Kerry himself.
Dr. Miller, who spent over 24 years at the Department of State, being engaged for years as an adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations, admits he’s never seen a peace process with cards being kept this close to the vest.
“In all the years I worked on the peace process I have never seen a process where nobody talks about anything — it’s a remarkable achievement. And here is what we don’t know — what Kerry has heard from Abbas and Netanyahu, did he hear things from both that can be converted into the negotiated agreement? But if this is just John Kerry’s belief that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is important, and his willful determination to get something going and hope that if you get sides together in one room, magically it will lead to an agreement — it’s a fundamental miscalculation on his part.”
One thing Miller is confident about — that without the most active U.S. involvement, the negotiations don’t stand a chance. “I don’t think there is any doubt that U.S. active involvement is required,” he says. “There has only been one Arab-Israeli agreement in 50 years — the peace treaty with Jordan — where they did it on their own. It’s almost inconceivable to me that they will be able to do it on their own now, because of who Abbas and Netanyahu are as leaders — they are not Sadat and Begin, they are going to need a lot of help.”
With negotiators being tight-lipped over the content of the possible agreement and no referendum precedents in Israeli history, it’s interesting that Netanyahu’s Cabinet rushed to pass a draft bill requiring any peace deal to be approved by referendum. Meanwhile, according to the recent Gallup poll, 74 percent of the Palestinians do not believe there will be a lasting peace with Israel, 17 percent do (a year ago, the share of pessimists stood at 71 percent vs. 20 percent who were willing to give peace a chance).
American Jewish organizations’ reactions to the talks differed, as expected — AIPAC, ADL cautiously welcomed the resumption of talks. EMET (Endowment for Middle East Truth), in a similar tone to that of the Israeli Minister of House Uri Ariel, protested the release of the Palestinian prisoners, warning that terrorists going free won’t help to promote true peace. Peaceniks showed more enthusiasm — but slammed the settlements expansion announcement. Debra DeLee, president and CEO of the Americans for Peace Now, called the Israeli Ministry of Housing announcement “an extraordinary sign of contempt for President Abbas and for new U.S. special Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk” that reflects “nothing short of deliberate effort to extinguish any hopes of success for the Kerry-backed peace effort before the second round of talks even starts.”
Netanyahu, she added, is playing a “reckless and irresponsible game,” trying to provoke the Palestinians to abandon the negotiating table — and blame them for another failure of peace talks.
Alan Elsner, vice president for communications at J Street, commends Netanyahu for the “painful yet courageous decision” to release Palestinian prisoners — adding, however, that “the series of announcements of new construction over the Green Line is profoundly unhelpful to the peace talks now getting underway. While these announcements in themselves will not determine the future of the peace talks, they do make the negotiations more difficult. They embarrass Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, making him look weak and constricting his ability to make concessions. They also give ammunition to Palestinians and others who simply do not believe that Netanyahu is serious about making peace.”
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, rebuffed the accusations. The territories where the units will be built, he argued, will anyway remain with Israel in any future agreement, so it doesn’t change anything.