There is a lot of buzz about the important piece by the prominent Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, detailing the collapse of the John Kerry-led Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Barnea has gotten off the record interviews with American negotiators, presumably including veteran “peace processor” Martin Indyk or at least his top aides. The result is a tremendously revealing work of journalism.
From the outset, there was reason to doubt the Obama administration could ever nudge the Netanyahu government towards negotiating a fair peace; Obama’s leverage vis a vis the American Israel lobby had not improved noticeably since he tried and failed to orchestrate an Israeli settlement freeze in 2010, and was humiliated by Netanyahu for his troubles. But John Kerry was committed to one last-ditch attempt to make the two-state solution happen, and when an American secretary of state devotes so much time and energy to an issue, there is at least the possibility of success.
Kerry was aiming towards something like the international consensus position for the past generation—a Palestinian state on the West Bank, its capital in East Jerusalem. Some revisions to the borders were made to allow Israel to retain its major “settlement blocs.” Netanyahu rejected this outright, and when he did, the Americans lacked a Plan B, which would presumably include pressures designed to encourage the Israeli electorate to reconsider whether it really wanted to be led by promoters of a “Greater Israel.”
Barnea’s informant described the Palestinian leadership headed by Mahmoud Abbas as flexible and well disposed to a settlement along these lines:
He [Abbas] agreed to a demilitarized state; he agreed to the border outline so 80 percent of settlers would continue living in Israeli territory; he agreed for Israel to keep security sensitive areas (mostly in the Jordan Valley – NB) for five years, and then the United States would take over. He accepted the fact that in the Israeli perception, the Palestinians would never be trustworthy.
“He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness. ‘Israel won’t be flooded with refugees,’ he promised.
Barnea’s source minced no words in telling why the talks broke down:
There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state. We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale. That does not reconcile with the agreement.
At this point, it’s very hard to see how the negotiations could be renewed, let alone lead to an agreement. Towards the end, Abbas demanded a three-month freeze on settlement construction. His working assumption was that if an accord is reached, Israel could build along the new border as it pleases. But the Israelis said no.
Thus Israel was able to procrastinate by making much of issues such as Jordan Valley security, but would refuse to discuss maps drawn up by American negotiators to allow Israel to retain the maximum amount of settlers on the West Bank.
A stunning revelation from the interviews is that the American negotiators were genuinely surprised by Israel’s lack of interest in reaching an agreement. Though Netanyahu has sometimes claimed to favor a Palestinian state, the ministers and parties he brought into his government are sworn enemies of giving up land they they call “Judea” and “Samaria.” Were Kerry and his negotiators somehow unaware of this?
The collapse of the Kerry mission should clarify the situation. When the 2000 Camp David negotiations broke down, Israel with Bill Clinton’s assistance (Hillary was gearing up to run for Senate)—constructed a narrative blaming Arafat for the failure. That isn’t happening this time. I don’t think any fair minded person can fail to conclude that Israel’s present government just doesn’t want to allow the Palestinians to have a state under any circumstances.
What happens next? Perhaps a third Palestinian intifada, in which the Palestinians pay a huge price in blood to get international attention focused on their dispossession. More optimistically, we could see an increased scope for European diplomacy: Europe holds a number of diplomatic carrots and sticks it could deploy with Israel: the sticks include cutting down on trade, making Israeli tourism more difficult (not allowing visas to Israelis who have served in the occupation forces, for instance) or joining a limited form of the BDS movement, barring from its markets Israeli goods made in the occupied territories. And while all the EU countries have their own versions of the Israel lobby, they have much less comparative clout than America’s.
The United States could bring about changes too. If a president were to explain to the American people how the occupation and how it violates core American values, he or she could diminish radically and possibly even break the power of the Israel lobby. But it would a bloody battle. Obama certainly doesn’t have the heart for it, and there seems little prospect his successors will. (Rand Paul’s endorsement of a perhaps ambiguous “Stand with Israel” bill as the negotiations collapsed is a strong indication that the lobby’s influence reaches well into Republican realist and noninterventionist circles.)
Palestinians will probably shift their attention towards international organizations and the BDS movement. The Palestinian Authority has already applied for membership in numerous international organizations, which will give them more legal standing against Israel. Perhaps the International Criminal Court will take an interest in Israeli violators of international law. Prominent Europeans—like the physicist Stephen Hawking—have already begun to boycott Israel. Israel almost certainly does not have a high tolerance for isolation from Europe and the Western world, so the intensification of such measures will make a difference. In the near term, the diplomatic conjuncture is extremely favorable to the Israeli right: Europe is preoccupied with Ukraine; between a horrible civil war in Syria and a military coup and authoritarian clampdown in Egypt, an Arab world wracked by discord lacks the moral authority to pressure Israel. But nothing in international politics last forever.
Meanwhile, the occupation grinds ever on. It will reach its 50th anniversary in three years—50 years in which a Palestinian population of six million is without meaningful political or civil rights, a situation Americans have subsidized with their tax dollars while their diplomats shield Israel from international condemnation. But American society is, ever so slowly, changing—there is far greater understanding of what Israel does and has done to the Palestinians than there was a generation ago, especially in the universities. As the Rand Paul episode illustrates, this sea change in sentiment hasn’t reached official Washington. But presumably it will.
Without a hegemonic United States seeking to supervise a barren “peace process,” energy for the liberation of Palestine may flow into more productive channels. Once Israel’s occupation is perceived as permanent, the Israel lobby will need some extremely innovative phrase-making to persuade the world that Palestinians should not have the right to vote for the government which rules their territory, while Israelis do. Some Israelis are banking on a Bantustan solution—proclaiming that the Palestinians are really “self-governing citizens” of Ramallah or Nablus, but that won’t work any better than it did when Pretoria tried it.
Kerry’s failure ends the Oslo chapter, which began with so much promise a generation ago. But it opens a new one.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.