The brouhaha surrounding the fourth phase of an Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners demonstrates just how inconsequential the current supposed peace talks really are. When conflicts are resolved or critical negotiating moments reached, political prisoners are invariably traded or released, almost irrespective of the crimes for which they have been convicted.
But in this case the prisoner issue serves as a substitute for, not an indication of, substantive political progress. The entire four-part prisoner release was itself a product of two things: PLO Chairman Abbas’ weakness - he failed to achieve either a settlement freeze or terms of reference for an Israeli withdrawal, prisoners were his fallback; and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cynicism – the releases are an easier domestic political sell and provide the opportunity (repeatedly) for depicting Abbas as a “terrorist-hugger.”
The current prisoners dilemma will likely pass, but the deeper malaise and impasse surrounding Israeli-Palestinian affairs remains.
The logic of the current U.S.-led effort is apparently predicated on the assumption that by offering Israel unprecedented security deliverables within a two-state deal (under a package put together by U.S. General John Allen), together with front-loading recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, that Netanyahu would then be unable to dodge a serious negotiation on territory. That logic, combined with the ever-present American unwillingness to deploy any leverage viz its Israeli ally. Predictably enough, the Israeli leadership has pocketed the American concessions, demanded that the Palestinians follow suit, and asked for more.
Credible leaks regarding the content of a possible Kerry framework proposal suggest that the generous Israeli willingness to accept more is being seriously considered by U.S. officials. The danger now is that a U.S. framework for further negotiations will constitute a step backward for the Palestinians on every issue in the peace talks when compared to the Clinton parameters of December 2000. The framework text is set to be less specific than Clinton on both Palestinian east Jerusalem being Palestine’s new capital and on territory, with no ceiling or ratio on land swaps, and more specific in further diluting Palestinian sovereignty to accommodate Israeli security maximalism and in embracing an exclusively Israeli historical narrative.
But perhaps this is not a problem at all and a solution will be better served if Palestinians adjust their expectations, accept whatever mini-statelet is offered and get on with building their future.
Except what is on offer, essentially a Palestinian Bantustan, is not a recipe for collective Palestinian betterment and would be illegitimate in most Palestinians’ eyes. The kind of lop-sided arrangement under consideration would also be unattainable and unsustainable, ultimately serving neither Israelis nor Palestinians. In fact a framework that shifts the goalposts in this way would further undermine the already listless prospects for a two state outcome. The offer of a ‘Palestine’ that is more Bantustan than sovereign state serves to enhance, by comparison, the attraction for Palestinians of an equal right’s one-state alternative. On the Israeli side the political take-away will be that more settlements and intransigence will ultimately be indulged not opposed by the U.S. – fuelling extremism rather than moderation.
The notion that the Palestinian leadership should accept even a problematic framework in order to call Israel’s bluff is a vacuous one. The U.S. cannot in good faith commit to holding Israel accountable for its rejectionism and to placing the dead cat at Netanyahu’s door. American officials tend to jump through endless hoops to avoid such a stand-off with Israel.
Given all this, the emphasis placed on American-sponsored bi-lateral negotiations may not have been such a good idea in the first place. Progress might be better served by having the Palestinians pursue their rights through international fora, civil disobedience and a focus on international law and Israeli violations thereof, even if America would pro forma oppose such initiatives. The accumulation of Palestinian leverage might then change Israel’s political calculus and even create new space for American-led peace efforts. Unsurprisingly such ideas are not to Israel or America’s liking, while Palestinian civil society and many in the political arena lose patience with their leadership for not adopting such a line.
After the intensity of engagement and dedication displayed by Secretary Kerry he also cannot just walk away. Two options can still, at this late stage, be considered to avoid doing harm and even improve the prospects for a breakthrough.
One option is for the current lop-sided parameters to be knocked into shape, especially in regard to clarity on the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem and the limited and equally reciprocal land swap option, thereby presenting a real moment of choice to Israeli decision-makers, the Knesset and public opinion. The Israeli right is not nearly as entrenched in power as is sometimes assumed, especially with the ultra-orthodox MK’s up for grabs.
Alternatively, avoid a framework proposal altogether at this stage and find another formula for sustaining the talks, without incurring the damage threatened by the framework on offer. Withdrawing a bad U.S. framework can be part of the incentive to continue negotiations. The Obama administration could then return in some months or a year to the first option – setting out clear choices for the respective publics and polities with an emphasis on the formula for territorial de-occupation.
Why wait? Well if the U.S. can secure a deal with Iran in the meantime then that would impact Israeli politics (removing Netanyahu’s favorite excuse for inaction elsewhere and even the raison d’être of his premiership) while crucially also demonstrating to Israel’s Prime Minister that the U.S. is capable of standing up for its own interests.
Daniel Levy is the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation.