Four schools of thought have emerged following the near-collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – each blaming someone else for the meager achievements of the last nine months of talks. Blame the Palestinians, Blame Israel, Blame Kerry, Blame all of the above. A fifth school – like the fifth cup of Passover – doesn't focus on blame, but rather contends that it is not yet over, that the parties are just playing hardball and attempting to score some more points before they come back to the table.
Let's look at the schools of thought, at some of their main points, and at the sub-schools and interactions between factions and arguments.
Blame the Palestinians:
Why blame them? Had they really wanted the negotiations to continue, they could have easily made it happen. A little more patience, a little more faith in Kerry's effort, and the prisoners would have been released, a partial freeze would have been imposed, and the talks would have continued. The fact they chose to make a scene, to "go to the UN", to make new demands (recognize East Jerusalem as Palestinian territory), is proof that they had no intention for negotiations to continue.
Who blames them? Israel. This includes both right-wing coalition partners like Habayit Hayehudi and centrist partners like Livni and Lapid. The Israeli opposition on the left is less determined and is trying to have it both ways: blame the Palestinians – because that's what most Israelis think, but also blame the Netanyahu government – because that's what an opposition is supposed to do. A senior Labor Knesset member, interviewed yesterday, refused to put the blame on either side, claiming that "he doesn't know whose fault it is". He doesn't want to blame Israel, as this would be met with the outrage of most Israeli voters (According to a Panels Politics' poll from last week, 69% of Israelis do not believe that Abu Mazen wants an agreement with Israel", and only 18% believe that he does). Still, the opposition politician wants to leave some room for doubt – to give the left-leaning voters a reason to vote for him rather than for Livni in the next election.
Important note: the Americans did not join the "blame the Palestinians" camp for one of two reasons: 1. They don't think it's their fault, 2. They don't want to spoil their chances at getting the sides back to the talks. Obviously, the blame game doesn't have a winner until the American Secretary of State sings – yet in this case he doesn't seem inclined to sing at all.
Why Israel? Well, there was an agreement and Israel didn't do its part. Last Wednesday I was at a TV studio with MK Ahmad Tibi, who made this argument forcefully and convincingly. Had the Palestinians not fulfilled an obligation would Israel not have responded? So now Israel did not do its part and began making more demands instead of releasing the prisoners as agreed. Abbas was forced to respond by going to the UN.
Who blames Israel? Surely, the Palestinians blame Israel. And then they blame Washington of playing into Israel's hands by not blaming Israel. One Palestinian official said that the American mediator, Martin Indyk, is a "Zionist" and that the US is "reading matters through the eyes of Likud". The "Palestinian leadership must develop a strategy to preempt the blame game lurking for it around the corner", wrote a columnist for Al Hayat. I think it was well prepared. Israel is guilty of not releasing the agreed upon prisoners and of continuing to build in the settlements – there was no agreement concerning the settlements, but the Palestinians know that making a settlement reference is always useful when it comes to proving that Israel isn't serious about peace.
Important note: Some attention should be given to internal political games. Certain coalition members are forced to partially blame Israel – or rather, blame other Israelis for being partially responsible for the failure – because that's the right political move for them. Minister Livni pointed a finger at Minister Ariel and his settlement building projects, but she was careful not to say that the talks had collapsed because of him. The talks collapsed because of the Palestinian side – Livni is also a politician and knows what Israelis expect to hear – but Ariel is guilty of giving the Palestinian side more rhetorical ammunition that they can use in their ‘blame Israel’ campaign.
Why Kerry? Well, for starters, because he is "messianic and obsessive", as Minister Yaalon said, about a process that had little chance of success to begin with. He was warned in advance that this is not the right time and not the right place in which to invest his effort. But he chose to ignore all the advice. Had this effort succeeded, Kerry would definitely deserve the Nobel Prize that he reportedly covets. Since the effort did not quite succeed, he cannot escape the burden of blame. It was his idea, his effort, his initiative, his plan, his delusion, his insistence, his pressure, his dedication. He put his credit on the line, gambled boldly – and lost. By the way, he lost for many reasons, among them the somewhat sloppy management of the talks. The argument over the release of Arab Israeli prisoners is a result of an American miscommunication of the sides' perceptions of the understanding (simply put: the Palestinians understood from the US one thing while the Israelis communicated to the US a different thing).
Who blames Kerry? You must be kidding with this question, right? Everybody blames Kerry – but only few do it publically. The White House blames Kerry – in the White House there is also talk about his obsessiveness. The Palestinians blame Kerry and are laughing behind his back. The Israelis blame Kerry and are grumbling behind his back. The only thing that saves Kerry from the relatively-quiet criticism becoming more vocal is the political interests of all parties. Israel and the Palestinians do not want him to point a finger at them, so they all play it nicely, praising his effort in public while dismissing it as useless and incompetent behind closed doors. Obama, of course, has his own reasons not to undermine his own secretary.
Blame all of the above:
Why all of them? Because no one came to the table with his hands clean and strategy intact. The Palestinians never believed in the negotiations – and are not ready to do what's necessary. Israel is also not blameless. It kept building in the West Bank, in some cases initiating provocations that were meant to annoy the Palestinian side. Yes, in most of these cases it was not Netanyahu, but rather his right-wing partners that provoked the Palestinians. Yet hiding behind Ministers Bennett and Ariel's backs is both undignified and doesn't matter much. And of course, the American mediator can hardly escape its share in the blame, for all the reasons stated above.
Who blames all of the above? All of the above.
Important note: you can blame everybody – and you can also say nobody's at fault. There is not enough will to reach an agreement, and the gaps are real. Sometimes, a collapse of negotiations is just a sign that there's no deal in sight. No one's fault – just reality.
It is not over:
In the real sense, this was over before it even began. There was never much chance that this round of negotiations would lead to an agreement. This doesn't mean that negotiations are over. The Americans are still working to salvage the talks; the Israelis have started threatening the Palestinians that unilateral steps can be taken by both sides, and not just by the Palestinians (for the readers of last week's column: this means that we now have three guns in that bar); the Palestinians have made their point and they might decide that they can now go back to the negotiation table. Three possible outcomes can be envisioned:
Back to square one: Prisoners released, UN process halted, talks resume. The problem: they only resume until the end of the month. To move forward another agreement about further talks will be necessary. So this is not a good deal for Israel.
Square one plus: All of the above, plus some more prisoners, Pollard, and maybe a partial freeze, coupled with an agreement on further talks. The problem: This is what the Palestinians didn't want two weeks ago, so why would they want it now? Moreover: the support in Israel for such a deal is rapidly eroding – Foreign Minister Lieberman is already threatening to vote against it and to choose another round of elections over a release of prisoners.
The big Framework: Trying to score big by putting the Kerry framework on the table, plus all the other elements. The problem: both sides are likely to reject the framework. But Kerry might decide that if talks fail, it is better for him to fall on his sword and not lose the whole process over the technicalities of the sequence of prisoner release.
Reevaluation: I'm going to write more about this tomorrow, but the basic idea behind “reevaluation” – essentially an American threat – is letting the talks collapse and waiting for the parties to come back to their senses (or not). By the way – this option doesn't contradict the previous one. Kerry can hand in a document and attempt to convince the sides to enter negotiations over it – or he can put it on the table (the document being his legacy) and stop giving his full attention to the process.