Palestinian-Israeli Talks: Time for a “Time Out”

"Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will remain in the Intensive Care Unit where the talks are currently hospitalized."

In basketball, when a team scores a number of baskets in a row, the opposing team’s coach usually calls for a “time out.” Its purpose is not only to give new instructions to the team, but more importantly, to stop the psychological slide that may be causing the collapse of the team’s defense and the impotence of its offense.

Therefore, it was hardly surprising that, as an avid basketball player, U.S. President Barack Obama reacted last Friday to the news about the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas by suggesting a “time out” in the currently morbid Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Implicitly, when suggesting the pause, Obama also acknowledged that the talks had reached a dead end even before the latest crisis, noting that the two sides’ leaders failed to make the difficult decisions that a breakthrough required.

Secretary of State John Kerry should heed the president’s advice. Moreover, he should use the suggested pause to take his negotiations team, headed by Special Envoy Martin Indyk, to a weekend retreat. There, they should review the process as it has unfolded since this phase of the talks began in July 2013. They should ascertain the strategic—not operational or tactical—mistakes made during the period. They should also determine what a “recalibrated” process should look like and assess whether they can do what it takes to achieve better results.

What are the key mistakes that should be discussed at the retreat? First, Kerry should not have permitted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engage him in endless discussions regarding the conditions for negotiations. Kerry should have told the two leaders:

Gentlemen, if you want peace, the United States is prepared to facilitate. If you reach an agreement, issues like a settlement-construction freeze and release of prisoners will be taken care of. Prisoners will be released and construction will cease in whatever settlements will find themselves located on the Palestinian side of the negotiated boundary. But the world presents the United States with too many important challenges for us to be engaged in negotiating precursors to negotiations. So make up your mind: If you want peace, we need to focus on border demarcation, security, Jerusalem, refugees, and water resources. Not on your conditions for negotiating these issues.

Second, Secretary Kerry should not have retreated from the original goal of negotiating a comprehensive deal to gaining acceptance of a Framework Agreement. The reason this was a mistake is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict violates the golden rule that “the devil is in the details.” In this conflict, the devil is in the principles that form the essence of any Framework Agreement.

The problem is less about the demarcation of a boundary that makes sense demographically—it is about accepting the principle that it would be based on the 1967 lines. The problem is less about dividing control and responsibilities in Jerusalem—it is about defining who will be sovereign in the Holy Basin. It is less about finding a practical solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees—it is about accepting the refugees’ Right of Return. It is less about gaining Palestinian acceptance of a legal stipulation that the agreement would “end all claims” and that following its signing there would be “no further recourse”—it is about gaining their formal recognition of Israel “as the national homeland of the Jewish people.”

While professionals on both sides can reconcile competing interests on the practical dimensions of the conflict, a Framework Agreement involves principles and competing national narratives that only the leaders can negotiate. Not surprisingly, Kerry has spent many visits and countless hours discussing these principles with Abbas and Netanyahu. This violated Henry Kissinger’s stipulation that leaders should not assume the role of negotiators. It also ignored the experience of South Africa, where the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to reconcile competing narratives took place only after the political resolution of the dispute.

Third, Kerry should have begun by focusing on the most important set of negotiations—that between himself and President Obama. This is because Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were never going to succeed without the United States exercising some leverage over the negotiating parties. But given the political capital that needs to be spent exercising such leverage, it is only the President of the United States who could decide that such leverage be employed. As these negotiations between the secretary and the president were never settled in a way that gained clarity in the minds of Palestinian and Israeli leaders, it is hardly surprising that both kept wondering what the president’s oft stated backing of his Secretary of State actually meant.

Finally, Kerry allowed a devaluation of America’s standing by violating Jim Baker’s number one rule for successful negotiations: The willingness to walk away from the table. By refraining from using leverage and by agreeing to engage the parties in endless discussions over conditions for negotiations—and even more bizarrely, by allowing Jonathan Pollard's possible release to be brought into the equation—the secretary gave the parties the impression that he is more interested in an agreement than they are. Thus, instead of the parties pleading for U.S. facilitation, it appeared as if Kerry was chasing Netanyahu and Abbas.