Since the Palestinian Authority surprised Israel and the United States with the announcement that it was applying to join 15 international covenants on Tuesday, senior Israeli officials have accused the Palestinian leadership of irresponsible behavior and endangering stability in the region. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said publicly that the Palestinian move hurts Palestinian interests.
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Inside the negotiating room on Wednesday, according to leaks from the other side, the Palestinians were warned by Livni, who is responsible for the negotiations on the Israeli side, that Israel could impose sanctions against the PA if it continues with the international process.
The Israeli worries cannot cover up the basic fact: It was Israel, not the PA, that violated the earlier agreements on the negotiations. At the end of March, Israel was supposed to release the fourth and last batch of Palestinian prisoners, the remaining 26 out of 104 prisoners scheduled to be released in terms of the agreement from July 2013. The minute Israel did not keep its commitment and ignored the schedule, the Palestinians saw themselves as free to respond.
Given all this, they didn’t exactly break all the agreements. The application to the international bodies was prepared a long time in advance by the staff of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a contingency plan. If the Palestinians really had wanted to create a full-blown crisis, they would have made such an announcement now - instead of allowing the talks to continue for almost a full month more, based on the original date agreed to by the two sides.
The Americans, who yesterday threatened to abandon it all and go home to Washington, and criticized the leaderships on both sides, also had an important role in creating the problem. It started with the assumption by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that it was possible to convince the parties to reach an agreement at the end of talks that were limited to nine months - while the clear political interest of both Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to drag out the negotiations without reaching an agreement, since such a deal would require painful concessions and internal political crises. From the start, Kerry’s assumption looked ambitious and maybe even unrealistic,
It continued with the dish Kerry cooked up for the last stage of the prisoner release. It was already quite clear that Netanyahu had not made any commitment to Kerry to free 14 Arab Israeli prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment - a difficult and unpopular step - as part of the final prisoner release. Kerry, whether intentionally or not, let Abbas understand that there would be such a release, without Netanyahu making any such commitment. The American mediator also did not try to solve the problem quickly, despite public warnings by Israel for months.
The reports of a possible new deal to extend the negotiations started last Saturday, with Avi Issacharoff’s report on Walla! of Israeli willingness to release another 400 prisoners. The two sides gave evasive responses but, by Monday night, it was clear that the Americans had already come up with the framework of the deal, which was also meant to include a significant treat for Israel: The release of Jonathan Pollard, along with a not very binding understanding on limitations on construction in the settlements.
It seemed to be a rather promising deal for both sides. Along with the disappointment from the frozen political situation and the economic slowdown on the West Bank, Abbas also suffers from a legitimacy problem. The last time elections were held in the West Bank was January 2006, and this fact undermines his position with the Palestinian public, making it harder for him to reach any understandings with Israel. The release of a relatively large number of prisoners - and even more so the release of 14 Israeli Arabs - would have allowed him to present a real achievement in response to his present distress; a riposte to Hamas’ success with the Gilad Shalit deal of October 2011.
The continuation of the negotiations, like the understandings in previous rounds, would also mean a serious inflow of funds for the PA, both from the U.S. and the EU. Such grants would guarantee the continued payment of salaries to PA employees and, first and foremost, to the thousands of members of the security services. Guaranteeing their salaries for a number of months in advance would make the security coordination with Israel easier and would provide some sort of commitment against a new outbreak of violence - the main fear on the Israeli side.
But Abbas also had other considerations. His need to respond to the postponement of the fourth prisoner release was one, and the announcement of tenders to build 700 more housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, however stale, was another. Added to these was the Palestinian impression that Israel had extracted a lot more from the Americans in the proposed new deal than the Palestinians themselves had received. If Netanyahu was willing to release 400 more prisoners to get an extension of the negotiations until the end of the year, at least, then maybe it was possible to extract more concessions from him while the clock was ticking down quickly.
There was also the question of the “quality” of the prisoners to be released. The Palestinians still remember Netanyahu’s trick 16 years ago during his first term, when he released as part of the Wye Plantation agreement hundreds of car thieves from prison instead of terrorists. The Palestinians worried the same thing would happen again. The Palestinians then decided that if Pollard could be released, they could ask for Marwan Barghouti.
What are the chances the deal could still happen? There is no doubt the Americans are investing major efforts in an attempt to solve the disputes. Even the most minor agreements over the past 25 years have usually been accompanied by crises until the very last minute, with mutual threats and American warnings they would abandon the mediation - and that the mediator cannot want peace more than the parties themselves.
But Abbas is not Yasser Arafat. He is an old man of 79, who long ago lost he belief that terrorism and the armed struggle will force Israel to give in to the Palestinians’ maximalist demands. Even now, the PA has quite a great deal to lose if the talks fail completely. And this could speed up its collapse. So we can carefully assume that the American attempts at mediation will continue throughout April.