Why Mahmoud Abbas 'Shut Down'

How America repeated mistakes it made in the past and contributed to the collapse of the recent Israel-Palestinian talks.

Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris.Credit: AFP
Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker

On the one hand, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Martin Indyk, invested an enormous amount of energy in trying to advance the negotiations. Night after night, the Israeli negotiating team reached Kerry via video conference call from whichever country he was visiting at the time, and the two sides spoke for hours, sometimes shouting at each other. One cannot help but appreciate the tremendous effort both of them made.

On the other hand, the things Indyk told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg after resigning the envoy’s post are upsetting. According to Indyk, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “moved into the zone of a possible agreement.” However, in mid-February Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suddenly “shut down,” and by March he “had checked out of the negotiations.” What Indyk failed to talk about was how shamefully the Americans were conducting the talks.

For four months there were fruitless conversations between the two sides, similar to the talks taking place in Washington. After these wasted months, the Americans, led by Kerry and Indyk, decided to work on a document of principles for a permanent agreement. But they decided to work only with Israel. For three weeks that met intensively but solely with the Israeli team, and argued over every word.

There is nothing the Palestinians hate more than this method of negotiating and Indyk knows this well. For three weeks the Palestinian team sat with nothing to do, watching despairingly as the superpower coordinated positions with Israel, with the White House keeping close tabs on the talks the whole time (at a certain point a White House representative sat with the American team), to make sure that the Kerry-Indyk team would do nothing that would set off a political confrontation with Netanyahu.

Three senior officials who are familiar with what happened during the negotiations and whose information provides the basis for this article, told me that Netanyahu would have been willing to compromise even more if an independently crafted U.S. document had been presented to him.

But after three weeks, the Americans remembered to present their pro-Israel document to Abbas. They were sure the puppet leader would start making comments about the document. And then they seemed surprised that he “shut down.” Well, duh. What a surprise.

The 10-page document didn’t give the Palestinians anything in Jerusalem, presented a considerable compromise to be made by Abbas on the refugee issue, and included recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, and security measures that the Palestinians found too tough to digest.

What’s especially aggravating is that this mistake had been made time after time in the past – at Camp David, in Shepherdstown – everywhere. It is referred to as the principle of “no surprises.” It states that the United States will not surprise a close ally with proposals that have not been previously brought to that ally’s attention.

Time after time, this principle has superseded the most basic obligation demanded of an honest broker. By the way, it’s not me saying this. Indyk wrote it himself, in his memoirs.

In the interview, Indyk graciously offered an argument in defense of Abbas.

He “shut down,” the envoy said, because of construction in the settlements. But once again, Indyk forgot to tell us about the Americans’ role in the matter. It appears that they agreed to allow Netanyahu to publish tenders for settlement construction during the negotiations. What’s more, the Americans were the ones who made the creative proposal to publish those tenders at the same time as each prisoner release took place. The Americans were even informed of the tenders in advance.

After the second prisoner release, the Americans had second thoughts and tried to stop the madness, but by then it was a little too late. Abbas had already “shut down.”

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