John Kerry hasn’t made too many correct assessments about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the past few months, but last night, as negotiations seemed close to a point of breakdown, it was easy to agree with him. "It is completely premature tonight", he said, "to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any kind of final judgment, about today’s events and where things are”. Every beginning student of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation history knows that for every understanding there is at least one crisis, that every decision must be accompanied by a last minute collapse. Honest observers would also have to note that it is usually the Palestinian side that uses this old brinkmanship tactic. Yesterday they vowed to attempt to join fifteen international agencies. That is the big threat they can use against Israel, assuming that the sympathy of world organizations is going to complicate Israel's legal and diplomatic status.
Do they really intend to swing this sword, or just to show it off to extract a few more concessions from Israel (and from the US mediator)? In the last twenty four hours both Americans involved in the negotiations and Israelis would have you believe that this is a crisis that precedes an understanding. Yet their tone was not one of great confidence. They were taken by surprise by Palestinian moves, and they realized that they might not understand what Abbas truly wants. Maybe he decided that talking is no longer a viable strategy for him. Maybe he was looking for an exit – an escape route that was provided by Israel's hesitation regarding the fourth planned release of prisoners.
Two guns were put on the table yesterday: The Palestinians pulled one out, loaded it – Abbas made the symbolic gesture of signing the documents that are slated to be sent to the international organizations – and have it ready for use. The Americans also showed their gun, if more hesitantly. Their gun is not one that is pulled out – it is one that is pulled back, a gun of avoidance. "The United States should refrain from its own extraordinary gestures, including the release of Mr. Pollard", editorialized the Washington Post. The Kerry team sent a similar message, except that it replaced the "should" with a "might". If talks collapse, the Americans might leave it the sides to amend their differences. They might decide that, indeed, the US can't want an agreement more than the Israelis and the Palestinians do, and withdraw from the peace process. This would be an embarrassment, as it would prove that Kerry's critics were right all along and that he has been chasing the wind instead of doing something constructive in world affairs. Nevertheless, there's a point at which the Americans’ patience is going to expire. Hence, the loaded gun of abstention.
Israel is the only party in the talks that hasn't yet pulled out a gun. It hasn’t pulled out a gun for one of two reasons: either it doesn't have one to pull out, or it might still be hoping that playing it calmly is better at this stage than joining the chorus of desperation cries.
As I wrote here yesterday - when Pollard's release, a distraction really from the major issues, was the topic of the day – "the Palestinians are definitely getting the upper hand with this deal, if it materializes. And they are winning for a good reason. They are the only ones to have a plan B if talks fail". A deal might not happen after all, but the Palestinians proved yesterday that they have a plan. And the American plan is to stop having plans for a while. What Israel's plans are is still a mystery. What if the Palestinians seriously mean to avoid further negotiations? What if the US decides to stay on the sidelines, effectively hurting Israel much more than they hurt the Palestinians? (That is, unless the US actively works to sabotage the Palestinian plan for world recognition – I'm not sure if the Obama administration is ready to adopt such a policy).
Israel seems to be in need of an effective countermove to recent developments. If it has one, we don’t see it yet. If it doesn't, one of two things are going to happen: if the Palestinians are merely playing chicken, Israel will have to make even more concessions on the way to having a deal. If the Palestinians are serious about moving away from negotiations, it will have to take unilateral steps as well.