With peace talks pushed to the edge of a breakdown last week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators carried on Monday with U.S. intercession.
The near unraveling came last Thursday when Israel announced it would not release another batch of Palestinian prisoners, breaking its commitment in the negotiations.
Israel said its hand was forced to suspend the talks when the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, signed 15 international treaties and conventions — a clear assertion of statehood — which he promised he would not do during the negotiations.
The Palestine Liberation Organization has said its decision to seek membership in several U.N. organizations should not mean an end to the U.S.-brokered peace talks. The PLO's secretary-general, Abed Rabbo, said that Palestinians were committed to negotiations. "This step will affirm the status of Palestine in the international community, legally and politically, and it is a good step on our way to get the recognition from the entire world of our status as a state, equal to other states but under occupation."
This step will affirm the status of Palestine in the international community, legally and politically, and it is a good step on our way to get the recognition from the entire world of our status as a state, equal to other states but under occupation.
Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders say they sought to become signatories to treaties only after Israel let a prison release deadline expire in March. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not stand for such actions by the Palestinians.
He said, "The Palestinians' threats to approach the U.N. will not affect us. The Palestinians have much to lose by taking unilateral steps. They will achieve a state only through a direct negotiation, not by empty declaration or unilateral measures. These will only push further away a peace agreement. Unilateral steps on their part will be answered by unilateral steps from our side. We are willing to continue with the talks but not at any cost."
The Palestinians have much to lose by taking unilateral steps. They will achieve a state only through a direct negotiation, not by empty declaration or unilateral measures. These will only push further away a peace agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has given the peace talks a deadline of April 29. He did not say what the next move will be if the current talks break down.
Why do you think the talks are failing?
What do the alternatives look like?
Is it true that the United States can’t want peace more than the Israelis and the Palestinians?
We spoke with a panel of three Middle East experts for the Inside Story.
Why do you think the peace talks are failing?
Saree Makdisi: They have always been on life support. They have been where they have been for years. The primary reason they are there is because there is no substantive pressure on Israel, and on the contrary, its demands seem to be growing greater rather than moving toward compromise. The Palestinian leadership is focused on creating something approximating a Palestinian state in the West Bank. But it is becoming clear that whatever they have in mind would leave out the majority of Palestinians, most of whom do not even live in the West Bank.
The refugees are the single biggest group of Palestinians. Abbas is beginning to feel the pressure on that. There is no space or resources in the West Bank. And they have a right to return to the Israel proper from which they came.
The other issue is the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The demand that Palestinians recognize the Jewish character of the state could further infringe on the rights of those Palestinians. More and more Palestinians now believe there are other avenues that we can move toward that do not have to do with this sham of a process.
What do those alternative avenues look like?
I don’t think Abbas’ move helps. I think the most comprehensive solution is a one-state solution. It is increasingly being put on the agenda by Palestinian civil society. It would be a secular democratic state respecting all of its citizens —Muslim, Jewish and Christian. Everybody wins in terms of rights if not in terms of desires. They can use international institutions as leverage to gain more concession. Maybe it would work, maybe not. If you’re using leverage, you must have goals, and it is not clear what they are.
How do you achieve that?
You achieve that through the boycott movement and appealing to international institutions. There are not many tools available to the Palestinians. That is the most potent resource that Palestinians have. They definitely have international public support. The support for BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] has entered into mainstream more than it ever was two years ago. Take the whole Scarlett Johanssen affair — the idea that it would have such an impact really speaks to changing momentum.
Has the United States helped in the peace process? For example, has it been assertive enough in pushing Israel?
Richard LeBaron: The Palestinians would, of course, say no. But I would say that that is a misinterpretation by the Palestinians. We do not pressure close friends like Israel that way. It is not a question of pressure so much as nudging them in the right direction and showing them that this is in their best interests.
What we need to get away from is negotiating about negotiations, which we got trapped in in the past few weeks. We started talking about things that have nothing to do with the peace process, like Jonathan Pollard. We cannot let the negotiations get off track because of distractions from the parties themselves. [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry has mostly been good at that, but last week was bad.
Can the United States want peace more than Israel and the Palestinians do?
We want it a lot. There are still things we can do. [Kerry] has tried proposing a framework, and that is still possible. I think we can make public a U.S. proposal rather than privately, as we have been doing. He should just keep at it and not be deterred by this roadblock. None of these problems is insurmountable. The main thing is to show determination to keep going. And he’ll need the president’s support all along the way, not just at the end.
What has changed in Israel since the 1990s?
Dan Goldenblatt: Public opinion in Israel has veered to the right. Support for the center and center-right has increased. The country has become more religious. People still talk about exploding buses in Israel, even though, thankfully, the suicide bombers have not come since the second intifada. That had a very strong impact on the Israeli psyche. That continues to be fed by Israeli politicians to feed into this existential fear that Israelis have. This constant everlasting security threat — Israeli politicians say repeatedly that we can only count on ourselves. It is one the public listens to. Israel needs the international community. It needs the American government’s support.
Do Israelis take U.S. support for granted?
To a certain extent. Had the American administration put its foot down, it could have gotten Israel to do what it wants. We know Netanyahu has very strong ties on Capitol Hill. He probably even tried to influence, unsuccessfully, the last election. There is a feeling that we can trust Americans to not go the whole nine yards and pressure Israel. We know that from past experience.
What is Israel-Palestine: Creative Regional Initiatives?
We are a 25-year-old organization. It started as an Israeli-Palestinian think tank involved in track-two negotiations. We brought thousands of Israelis and Palestinians together. In the past two years, our mission has changed a little bit. We still support a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We no longer believe it can be done through a separation paradigm. We believe the solution must include two sovereignties and yet complete freedom of movement throughout. Important Jewish sites are in West Bank, and 100 percent of Palestinian refugees come from Israel proper. We are also focused on strengthening the Palestinian private sector. We take Israelis to Palestinian cities to show them real people living their lives. We call it breaking down the walls.