The Middle East peace effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that ground to a halt earlier this week always looked like a case of history repeating itself. Kerry’s goal was not to conclude the long-stalled negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinian leadership that began 23 years ago; instead he sought a framework agreement that would define the parameters of final-status talks at some point in the future. Even that modest goal proved elusive, however, with Israel’s announcement Thursday formally canceling a fourth limited release of Palestinian prisoners — after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ formal application to join 15 international conventions — signaling an end to the current round of talks about talks.
Prospects for negotiating a two-state solution to conclude the Oslo peace process, launched in 1993, appear more remote than they were 21 years ago. The difference, perhaps, may be in the balance of pressure operating on both sides then compared with now.
Today Israel holds the strategic cards. On the basis of its overwhelmingly superior and unchallenged military strength, it exercises sovereign power from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, as it has done for almost half a century. The Palestinians with whom it negotiates live under Israeli occupation; Abbas cannot leave the West Bank without Israeli permission. And such is the imbalance of leverage between the two sides at the table that Israel can — and does — unilaterally enforce its writ, regardless of what transpires in talks. The Israeli government refuses, for example, to accept the Palestinian demand (backed by an international consensus, including the U.S.) that Israel’s 1967 boundaries should be the territorial basis for negotiating Palestinian statehood. And whether or not talks continue, Israel continues to deepen its grip on land outside those boundaries by expanding settlements.
The Israeli side refused to discuss Jerusalem in the talks about talks and insisted on a new condition: that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians refused, saying that would require signing away the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the claim of millions of refugees to a right of return. They continue to insist on the 1967 lines as the basis for talks, knowing that the Israelis won’t comply but feeling compelled by U.S. pressure to once more repeat a ritual that they know will end in failure — a failure that they hope, despite all evidence to the contrary, will prompt the U.S. to apply more pressure to Israel.
Everyone on both sides knew all this before Kerry’s process started last summer. Nothing had changed in the balance of leverage responsible for past failures, and the status quo on the ground remains comfortable for Israel and intractable for the Palestinians. By proceeding anyway, Kerry may in fact have set back the clock to pre–Oslo Accord times. And what brought the two sides to the table were the internal and external pressures on both.
In the run-up to the Madrid conference in 1991 — which was the first time Palestinians were permitted to participate in a comprehensive forum negotiating their fate and which may have been a lifeline to the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose diplomatic position had been imperiled by Yasser Arafat’s support of Saddam Hussein in the conflict over Kuwait — then-President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, asked the U.S. Congress to put off a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel in order to compel it to halt settlement construction. The Republican president said at the time that despite being “up against some powerful political forces … what’s important here is to give the process a chance.”
Today threatening to withhold aid to Israel seems politically unthinkable for any U.S. administration. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu effectively walked President Barack Obama back from his 2009 demand for a settlement freeze. The administration continues to insist that all settlement construction is illegitimate, but it has not imposed any consequences — as Bush did in 1991 —for Israeli defiance on the issue. The U.N. Security Council deems all Israeli settlement on land conquered in the war of June 1967 to be in violation of international law.
Whereas Bush used the stick, the Obama administration brandished only carrots, such as the possible early release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard — not in exchange for a settlement freeze, which the U.S. now appears to have concluded is too much to ask, but for only a vague commitment to slow down construction. The year Kerry launched his process, for example, saw a doubling in the number of new settlement homes constructed in the West Bank.
Freezing settlement construction has been posed as a concession to keep Palestinians talking, but the problem runs deeper. The geography of settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem undermines the prospects of the creation of a viable, sovereign Palestinian state, ostensibly the shared goal of Abbas, Netanyahu and the U.S. The Palestinians are highly unlikely ever to agree to a solution that doesn’t allow them to call East Jerusalem the capital of their state. And West Bank construction plans further balkanize the territory available for any Palestinian state.
The Kerry process appeared to simply evade the facts on the ground and get the two sides talking, reprising conversations they’d been having for years. But whether on the ground or at the table, Israel appears to be in the driver’s seat, under no pressure other than Kerry’s periodic warnings that failure to end the occupation endangers Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and may even bring boycotts and international isolation.
The original premise of the Oslo Accord was that a decades-old conflict could be resolved through bilateral negotiations in a framework based on relevant U.N. resolutions, out of the understanding that it must be a win-win situation for both sides. After 20 years of U.S. mediation, Kerry’s effort set itself the more limited goal of simply managing the process itself, while Israel continues to manage the reality on the ground. His all-too-predictable failure sends an unmistakable message that the current U.S. framework for dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become an anachronism.