Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: April 7, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses the flurry of obstructive peace process-related events of the past week, what derailed the process, and what could save it; the broader international situation; more basic or strategic factors informing the crisis; how serious the immediate damage is and how all this affects Israeli politics.

Q. Can you "deconstruct" the flurry of obstructive peace process-related events of the past week and explain what derailed the process and what could save it?

A. This seems to have been a kind of "perfect storm" of things going wrong at the tactical level. It began with PM Netanyahu's hesitation about releasing more prisoners, especially Arab citizens of Israel, and with members of his coalition sabotaging the process with threats and settlement construction. It continued with uncertainty in Jerusalem and Washington over the Pollard dimension. Palestinian leader Abbas then decided to preempt and begin applying to UN-related international conventions without waiting for the nine-month negotiating process to be completed, as he had originally pledged. And both sides then loaded on more baggage in the form of new Palestinian conditions to renew negotiations and Israeli threats of unilateral retribution.

Above and beyond it all was a certain rather deceptive dimension. No one is talking any longer about a genuine peace process. The Kerry-Indyk efforts to "save" the process are understood by all to constitute an attempt basically to maintain the current relatively stable status quo at least until the end of 2014. The Obama administration needs this for electoral purposes; Netanyahu, to hold his coalition together, survive politically and maintain the pace of Israel swallowing up the West Bank and East Jerusalem; Abbas, grudgingly, needs it to ensure ongoing US and EU funding that keeps the Palestinian Authority afloat.

Hence it is still possible that some sort of face-saving formula will be found to keep the talks going beyond the April 29 deadline that marks the conclusion of the agreed nine-month negotiating period. In this regard, it is "helpful" that the crisis began early in April: all three parties have plenty of time to work their way out of it, even factoring in Pesach week.

Q. Can you factor in the broader international situation?

A. There is little doubt in my mind that the overriding impression throughout the Middle East that the Obama administration is withdrawing from the region and seeking non-confrontational compromises where it still is involved (e.g., Iran, Syria) as well as further afield in Crimea, contributed to the readiness of both Netanyahu and Abbas to enter into a crisis situation. Neither leader apparently really believes he will be "punished" by the US.

Q. Can you discuss the more basic or strategic factors informing the crisis?

A. The biggest impediment Kerry has had to deal with is the fundamental reluctance of both Netanyahu and Abbas to subscribe to a comprehensive process that ends all aspects of the conflict. Each knows that his most basic conditions--Jewish state, united Jerusalem, and Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley for Netanyahu; right of return, capital in Jerusalem, exclusive control over the Temple Mount, and 1967 lines for Abbas--is unacceptable to the other. Abbas knows that Netanyahu's current coalition is antithetical to the concept of extensive Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank; Netanyahu knows that Abbas cannot speak for the Gaza Strip that he claims to represent in negotiations, that even his political base in the West Bank is shaky, and that his political base in the Palestinian diaspora will not accept any compromise regarding the right of return.

Neither leader can or will yield on these issues. Last month at a White House meeting, Abbas reportedly refused even to discuss Kerry's draft framework agreement with Obama because it contained a "Jewish state" clause. Netanyahu's claim a few weeks earlier in Washington that Israel and the US want an agreement but the Palestinians don't did not impress Kerry's negotiating team. Under these conditions and in view of past experience, Kerry's initial aspiration to reach an end-of-conflict-end-of-claims two-state solution in just nine months was sadly unrealistic.

Yet the nine-month deadline set the stage for this crisis. The situation was exacerbated as Kerry, increasingly coming to grips with the enormity of his task, began fudging not the deadline but the goal: since last July he has backtracked from end of conflict in nine months, to an agreed framework, then to a non-agreed American framework, and finally, in recent weeks, to a demand merely that the two parties agree to keep talking. In parallel, "talking" has in recent months come to mean each party negotiating with the US mediators, not with one another.

Seen along this diminishing continuum, the current crisis appears to have been inevitable, whatever the specific causes, claims and counter-claims. Before anyone in the international community undertakes to sponsor a new peace process, it is imperative first to investigate the conceptual underpinnings of this one and ask whether they were really sound.

Q. So how serious is the immediate damage?

A. With good will, both parties can be walked back to more congenial positions. Abbas can freeze his letters asking for Palestine to be accepted to 15 very minor UN-affiliated international conventions, thereby reversing his violation of a commitment to wait nine months. Netanyahu has to find a way to honor his commitment to free 26 additional prisoners, including Israeli Arabs. This would restore the status quo ante and enable the American mediators to once again try to put together a package that allows several more months of talks: Israel would release additional prisoners who are not heavy offenders, institute some sort of relatively inconsequential settlement freeze, and withdraw threats of economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority; the Palestinians would drop the additional conditions they piled on in recent days ("release 1,200 prisoners, recognize Jerusalem as our capital, lift the siege on Gaza"), not use the Arab League foreign ministers meeting this Wednesday to escalate the crisis, and perhaps agree to some minor concession.

Possibly none of this will work without heavier American input: either financial incentives for the Palestinians and security "goodies" for Israel, or the opposite--painful economic and security sanctions. It is questionable whether the Obama administration will consider such moves. In some ways this depends on a decision by Obama and Kerry as to the relative importance of keeping alive this process with its dim chances of genuine success, vis-a-vis alternative administration priorities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Last September at the United Nations General Assembly, Obama proclaimed that his administration would prioritize two and only two Middle East issues: the negotiations over Iran's nuclear project, and the two-state solution. The Iran negotiations appear to be moving ahead full steam with a reasonable chance of success even within the agreed six-month deadline. The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even if rescued this time around, are going nowhere. Will this cause Obama to revise his Middle East agenda?

Then there is the Pollard issue. At a crucial juncture in the crisis during the past two weeks, Kerry proposed freeing convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from jail in the US as an incentive for Netanyahu to release Arab citizens of Israel among the 26 terrorists included in the fourth and final agreed release and also to add several hundred additional prisoners at a later stage of the extended negotiations. It was never clear in Jerusalem whether Kerry had obtained Obama's agreement and the acquiescence of the US security community regarding Pollard's release. The current crisis, which began when Netanyahu delayed a decision on the prisoner release and then mushroomed when his housing minister declared new housing starts in East Jerusalem and Abbas responded with his 15 international conventions, has seemingly shelved the Pollard initiative. But Netanyahu is certain to demand that it be reinstated if the crisis abates.

Q. How does all this affect Israeli politics?

A. As usual in such a situation, and in view of the special nature of Israeli coalition politics, party leaders are threatening. Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) will bring down the coalition and initiate new elections if more prisoners are released. Livni (HaTnua) will leave the coalition if the peace process collapses. Bennet (Jewish Home) will leave if it continues, etc. One way or another, this crisis provides a test of Netanyahu's leadership: his priority is keeping his coalition together, and himself in power, no matter what happens.

Further, if Jonathan Pollard is released as part of a way out of the crisis, Netanyahu--by presenting himself as the savior of a high-profile persecuted Jew--will have powerful ammunition to face down his right wing and keep it in the coalition. In general, release of Pollard will benefit Israeli hawks who thrive on tales of Jewish martyrdom--some, like Pollard's, artificial and manufactured--as affirmation of their claims that the world, including the US, is anti-Semitic and against our very existence. This in turn ostensibly obviates the need to withdraw from occupied territory and to get along with our neighbors.

Obama may soon have to decide if it makes sense to release Pollard, thereby antagonizing many in the American security community, Jewish community and elsewhere, merely in order to prolong a fruitless peace process and play Israeli right-wing politics.