With only weeks left before the planned April 29 deadline to reach an agreement in the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the Obama administration has been working overtime to salvage the talks that unraveled early last week. Despite the effort, experts are bearish on whether any progress can be made with the parties involved, all of whom are embattled at home and abroad.
Aaron David Miller, vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he believed from the beginning that the leadership was incapable of making tough decisions on core issues needed for an agreement.
“Certainly not with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas as leaders, and I think it was clear to only but the most woefully obtuse people,” Miller said of the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president.
“Every time there’s been a breakthrough, you need three ingredients – you have none of them [this time],” he said. “Number one, you need pain. Number two, you need gain. Number three, you need leaders. Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders. You don’t have any of those things. I’m sure there’s pain, but not enough. I’m sure there are prospects of gain, but not enough, and you don’t have the kind of leaders that are masters of their political constituency.”
After months of shepherding by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the talks broke down after Israel delayed the fourth round of an agreed-upon release of Palestinian prisoners and Abbas signed 15 U.N. agreements.
Though Netanyahu displays admirable staying power, according to Miller, he is embroiled in internal battles with right-wing elements of his own Likud Party and even more right-wing members of his governing coalition – forcefully limiting his ability to make any significant departures from the status quo.
“From the Israeli perspective, I think the issue of the prisoners was contested within the government, so mainly Netanyahu’s problem is within his own government,” said Boaz Atzili, professor of international politics at American University. “The right wing of the government that sort of gave up on the previous round of prisoner releases decided to stand its ground on this one.”
As far as Israeli politics is concerned, Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and president of the Israel Institute in Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv, agrees about growing disaffection with Netanyahu among Israeli hard-liners.
“There is a powerful lobby in the country and inside the coalition in the government; the settlers would like to see a collapse of the negotiations and a perpetuation of the status quo, and I hope the prime minister asserts himself and takes the leadership,” said Rabinovich.
For Abbas, according to Rabinovich, the situation is even grimmer, as his authority is viewed by many Palestinians as illegitimate after preventing elections from being held in the West Bank since 2009. His move at the U.N. last week has shored up his base, so to speak.
“The Palestinians certainly now have a sense of empowerment, having discovered that the threat to go to the U.N. General Assembly and to go to these 15 agencies, and to move forward if not to complete the march towards formal statehood is a threat that both the U.S. and Israel are terrified of, or at least made anxious by, and they are now trying to exploit it and press for much, much, better terms,” explained the former ambassador.
The moves show that the nearly nine months of talks have not engendered any greater trust between Israel and the Palestinians than what had existed previously.
“In the Palestinian case, I think they believe that Israel just wants to talk for the sake of talking and is not really interested in reaching a peace agreement,” said Atzili.
In his first public statements after the new developments Sunday, Netanyahu said that he remains willing to continue talks, but “not at any cost.” He said that Israel can also take unilateral actions.
If the talks were to move forward, argued Rabinovich, Kerry may not be in the best position to conduct them, but the ball is squarely in the U.S.’s court if the talks have any chance of rebounding. The effort, said Rabinovich, should include greater investment by President Barack Obama.
“It’s the president’s at the end of the day,” he explained, “and I would say, since there is all this perception and talk about a U.S. shift from Europe and the Middle East to the Pacific, a general sense of lack of success in foreign policy – in Ukraine [and] Iran – this is a place you can make a difference and make a big investment.”
The State Department has been careful to blame both sides for scuttling the talks, as well as urging both sides to continue discussions. But on Friday, deputy spokesman Marie Harf appeared to be distancing herself from a full commitment to continuing or extending the talks.
“So is there a path forward that both sides can agree to where we can go from here? We are evaluating that right now,” she said.
Miller offered a sobering assessment.
“There aren’t many things to do,” he said. “You can leave them alone for a while. You can see if you can fix the burgeoning of deterioration of confidence. You can put a U.S. paper on the table; if they won’t accept it, say, ‘Fine, when you’re ready to deal with something real, call me.’ Those are about the only three things you can do.”
JNS.org contributed to this story.
Rabbis accentuate the post-peace talk positives
by Max Moline
Several Washington-area congregations and organizations say they are responding to the apparent collapse of the Israel-Palestinian peace talks by pushing a pro-Israel message to their congregants and constituents. Others would prefer to avoid the subject.
“We will continue to hold pro-Israel events,” said Noa Meir, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Action Center. While the JCRC is not responding directly to the peace talk breakdown, its goal is to continue to lead discussions on issues confronting the country today, she said.
“I see the interest [in discussing Israeli peace talks] decreasing,” said Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church.
The temple is planning an Israel Shabbat this month, but the rabbi is not planning on addressing the recent talks.
“Really, I think people are exhausted from this issue and running out of energy to address it and be passionate,” said Schwartzman.
A number of rabbis told WJW that they were not planning on giving sermons about the breakdown in peace talks. Still others said they were too uncomfortable with the issue to be interviewed about it.
But two rabbis said they are taking an optimistic approach to Middle East peacemaking.
“I think it’s always important for people to connect the Torah they’re studying with the spiritual implications in the world,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Congregation Beth Joshua in Rockville.
In a recent talk to congregants, Topolosky emphasized that Israel and the Jewish people should focus on the safety and freedom of all peoples, not just their own.
He drew a comparison between the four cups of wine at the Passover seder and the four cups the Egyptian butler dreamed of in Genesis that led Joseph to predict the man’s freedom.
“This is a holiday that is not just about Jewish freedom, but about freedom of all peoples,” said Topolosky. “A state comes with its own responsibility – a responsibility to ensure the freedom of others.”
Topolosky said his goal is “that we can all celebrate seder together and not live in fear of another war.”
Rabbi David Kalender of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax said he is “one of those people who continues to hold out hope even long after I was supposed to,” when it comes to the peace talks. “I see this as a slowdown,” not a breakdown, he said.
“The most important thing to do from a rabbinic perspective” is to show people the “behind-the-scenes details,” rather than “sound bites and headlines” that oversimplify Middle East issues,” he said. Olam Tikvah will host an Israel Shabbat on April 26, which will feature first-hand accounts of congregants who’ve traveled to Israel in the past year.
“We have a responsibility to protect our own freedom,” said Topolosky, “but we also need to sit at the table” in order to seek the freedoms of others.