Three leaders were eligible for a Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago for not bringing about a lasting peace. Today one wonders: Has the bar been lowered enough since then so that achieving negotiations alone — just the talking — is now an accomplishment worthy of the trophy? If Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat got it for their noble yet unsuccessful efforts at achieving peace, is John Kerry already a candidate?
He should definitely get credit for his tenacity. Stubborn, dogged, insistent, the U.S. secretary of state achieved his goal after the oh-so-familiar last-minute stumble. The Palestinian leadership was, as always, at its best the minute before negotiations resume or a document needs to be signed. But as expected, Peres knew what he was talking about when he said that “real progress” was made. And the credit for this “real progress” goes to Kerry.
There’s a famous sketch by HaGashash HaChiver — ask your Israeli friends about this fantastic Israeli comedy trio — called “the Churba” (the ruin). Two friends are nearing the end of a long, exhausting walk — tired, breathless and sweaty. They are talking about the person who brought them to this destination.
“Without him,” the first guy reminds the second, “we would never have gotten to where we are.”
“Well, where did we get to?” the second guy asks.
“To the ruin!”
Of course, negotiations are no ruin — they are a blessing. One is right to wonder about Kerry’s priorities, and to doubt his chances of success, and to be mystified by his game plan — while still congratulating him for a job well done. And one can still hope something will come out of it.
Being skeptical about the process is both easy and reasonable: Even assuming both sides come to the table with the best of intentions, the minimum that the Palestinians are demanding seems quite far from the maximum Israel will be willing to agree to. And the support of the Arab League doesn’t mean as much as it used to. And then there’s the fact that the most crucial Arab country — Egypt — is busy (the region, generally speaking, is busy). And the Obama administration is also busy. And Israel is busy with a fairly ambitious domestic agenda — and quite skeptical regarding the prospects for peace. And Gaza is still held by Hamas.
Yet negotiations are still better than what we have now. Or are they? Previous ambitious attempts at reaching a solution for the “conflict” ended badly. In other words: Talks might be better than stalemate, but a stalemate is better than failure. That’s one reason to enter this phase of talks hopefully, but warily.
Thoughts on the Palestinian Strategy
Why did the Palestinians decide to play last-minute games instead of seizing the opportunity to get back to the negotiating table? Ask the European Union. If the Palestinians can pocket achievements without having to sit at the table and face the tough choices they need to face, why negotiate? If they can look around and reach the conclusion that even more ambitious targets are within reach with the assistance of the international community, why waste time on small prizes, such as getting to talk to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
As Palestinians were mulling their strategy for the future, “Senior Palestinian officials had come to view the United States as a significant obstacle and started looking for a way to circumvent it,” Shlomi Eldar writes in Al-Monitor. So now the United States is facing a dilemma: It can signal to the Palestinians that they can circumvent the United States — and to the Europeans that cooperating with such a maneuver will have a cost — or it can try to compete with the European Union for Palestinian attention by making concessions. Naturally, the price for such concessions can only come from one wallet: Israel’s.
That’s why the events of recent days, and the U.S. response to the Palestinians’ last-minute stalling and demands, were important to watch. If the Palestinians were able to significantly gain from this little last-minute exercise — if Kerry used his newfound European leverage to put more pressure on Israel — then Israel has reason to worry about the future course of negotiations.
Is this what happened? We really don’t know, not yet. The conflicting reports haven’t yet revealed all the details about the last round of last-minute talks, and they have made it hard for the public to assess whether Kerry was playing hard ball (by threatening to pull American support away from the Palestinian Authority) or whether he was making concessions (and giving a letter of intent he didn’t intend to give, promising Palestinians to talk about the 1967 lines).
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.