The latest issue of The New Republic includes the definitive account of Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts at reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. No one comes off looking good.
During the talks, which began last summer and ended in early April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was never really able to convince his counterparts in the U.S. or Palestinian governments that he was serious about making peace and decided to hang on to his anti-peace process right-wing coalition partners at a crucial point in the talks.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas felt his side wasn’t getting enough of an incentive from the Israelis to negotiate, and the Palestinians couldn’t shake the perhaps-justified sense that they were being manipulated by both parties.
But the United States initiated the latest round of talks. And the Obama administration — which spent substantial diplomatic capital with both sides in exchange for nine months of fruitless and even counter-productive talks — might look the worst of all.
Here are five instances in Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s article where the Obama administration’s desire for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may have gotten the better of it.
Susan Rice curses at the Palestinians’ top negotiator. As Tibon and Birnbaum put it, Saeb Erekat is “a political Swiss Army Knife — chief negotiator with the Israelis, chief ambassador to the Americans, chief international media spokesman, and right-hand man to Abbas.”
National Security Advisor Susan Rice reportedly had the following, spectacularly undiplomatic exchange with him after a particularly tense negotiating session:
“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 f — big picture.”
Kerry and Netanyahu had a huge miscommunication, but sort of rolled with it. Israel agreed to release scores of convicted terrorists as a precondition for getting the Palestinians to return to negotiations. But for one flabbergasting reason, Kerry and Netanyahu never quite agreed on how many would be released, or when.
Netanyahu told Kerry that he was prepared to release approximately 80 of them (excluding those with Israeli identity cards). Kerry asked for — and thought he heard Netanyahu agree to — all 104. “Both of them like to talk for long periods of time,” said someone who has dealt with both leaders. “And I’m not sure that when one of them is lecturing the other at length, the other guy is really listening very carefully.”
Obama was willing to release a convicted spy as a personal favour to Kerry. As the talks collapsed earlier this year, Kerry engineered a proposed and eventually scuttled three-way deal in which Israel would release hundreds of convicted terrorists, the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table, and the U.S. would release Jonathan Pollard, a former Naval intelligence analyst who is in the 27th year of a life sentence for spying for Israel in the mid-1980s.
The U.S. intelligence community is almost uniformly against releasing Pollard. According to Tibon and Birnbaum, Obama apparently believed it was worth letting the peace talks fizzle if releasing Pollard was the price of their continuation.
Here’s why the president changed his mind:
Kerry was becoming desperate, though. At the Ritz, he explained to Obama and Rice that, without Pollard, the talks were days away from collapse (in part because of his initial miscommunication with Netanyahu). Obama wasn’t pleased. But late at night, after hours of talking, he gave Kerry the go-ahead. “I’m not doing this because I want to, John,” Obama said. “I’m doing this for you.”
At a crucial point in the talks, Kerry made a desperate promise to the Palestinians that he wasn’t able to keep. The talks eventually hinged on whether the Israeli cabinet would authorise the release of over 20 convicted terrorists who held either Israeli citizenship or Israeli residency, an unprecedented step in the two-decade history of the peace process. Even though Netanyahu was still pushing his cabinet to agree to the prisoner release, the Palestinians were growing impatient, and were threatening to apply for membership in 15 international conventions and organisations in order to gain increased leverage over Israel.
Whether intentionally or not, Kerry gave the Palestinians the false impression that a vote on the prisoner release was imminent. When no vote took place, the Palestinians submitted their membership applications, badly endangering the talks:
In his suite at the David Citadel, Kerry promised Erekat that the Israeli government would vote on the fourth prisoner release the following day.
“When?” Erekat pressed.
Kerry was peeved that Erekat was insisting on a specific hour. “Before noon,” he said.
Noon passed without a vote.
The Americans had no idea the Hamas-Fatah unity government was coming. One of the major themes of Birnbaum and Tibon’s reporting is that the U.S. focused a disproportionate amount of effort on gauging Netanyahu’s true intentions — and spent comparatively little time assuring the Palestinians that the negotiating process was in their interest.
By the end of the talks, the Palestinians were so deeply alienated from the U.S. that the Americans had no idea that a unity deal between the nationalist Fatah and militant Islamist group Hamas was even in the works:
[A]s the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumour they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISION, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT
Read the whole thing here.
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