The Plan for More Talks Is a Short-term Fix

Extending the talks under the proposed conditions benefits all the major players, but brings them no closer to peace.

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A protest in Jerusalem against releasing Palestinian prisoners on December 30, 2013. Sign reads: 'Disgrace! only in Israel are terrorists released.'
A protest in Jerusalem against releasing Palestinian prisoners on December 30, 2013. Sign reads: 'Disgrace! only in Israel are terrorists released.'Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

It’s very hard to predict how the negotiations over the American proposal to extend the Israeli-Palestinian talks will end. As of Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority seems to have adopted a policy of brinkmanship, whether in an effort to extract more Israeli concessions or because it has made a conscious decision to take its case to the United Nations.

At this point, it looks like the Americans will have a slightly easier time persuading the Israelis than the Palestinians to keep talking.

The agreement the Americans are trying to concoct seeks to extricate both sides from the trap they were thrown into by the nine-month deadline set for the talks in July. The Palestinian Authority would receive 400 released prisoners and increased legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians in the territories. Israel would apparently receive coalition stability (assuming the United States' release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard sweetened the bitter pill of the prisoner release for the government’s right wing) and a chance to extend the relative calm in the West Bank.

And the Americans? They would be spared the shame of admitting that Secretary of State John Kerry’s ambitious initiative failed because both sides rejected it.

In the short term, each of the three leading players has a clear interest in the success of the compromise, in the absence of any real chance to make progress toward a peace agreement within the inflexible timetable that was set. In the slightly longer term, the leaderships would only be putting things off without promoting a political solution. The same obstacles they face now — from the question of Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state to the massive evacuation of settlements — will remain at the end of October.

PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas needs an agreement, because he is facing an increasing problem of internal legitimacy for his diplomatic pursuits. Under these circumstances, Abbas hesitates to move forward in the talks with Israel is fear of being perceived as compliant and defeatist; a person who does not really represent public opinion in the territories. Moreover, the very act of talking to Israel is drawing increasing criticism within Fatah.

But under the American agreement, Abbas would be able to point to a concrete achievement that affects almost every Palestinian home — the release of some 500 prisoners (taking into account those already freed). This is nearly half the number of prisoners whose release Hamas achieved in the deal that released kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, without the enormous price of a military confrontation with Israel that Hamas had to pay. If Israel also agrees to release the 14 Arab Israeli prisoners who have been mentioned over the past week, Abbas will have an even greater success to his credit.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have to overcome a major hurdle to release 400 prisoners, but he could market the release to the right as yielding on small-fry criminals, primarily teens and women. The tear-jerking fanfare that would accompany lost son Jonathan Pollard’s return “home” would surely be atonement enough, with television coverage branding Pollard as Shalit II. At the same time, Netanyahu would try to present the unofficial and partial settlement construction freeze (suppressing tenders and restricting construction to the major blocs) with a wink, as a gesture that can by circumvented without much difficulty.

If Naftali Bennett and the settler community accepted these explanations, the coalition would survive for at least another half a year. At the same time Israel could count on continuing security cooperation with the Palestinian intelligence apparatus. This would reduce the risk of an explosion in the field, which is liable to be very large if the talks are stopped and declared a failure.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a news conference at the U.S. Ambassador to France's residence in Paris March 30, 2014. Credit: AFP

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