U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected sometime in the coming weeks to weigh in decisively on the Israeli-Palestinian talks he’s been shepherding, and the reports, statements and signs are that he will come down on Israel’s side like no American mediator ever has. Indications are he will present the outline of a deal that’s less forthcoming to the Palestinians than the offers presented them by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 and premier Ehud Barak in 2001. In other words, the emerging American “framework agreement” appears to ask the Palestinians to accept peace terms that are worse than the Israeli ones they already rejected.
This doesn’t mean anything for the chances of a peace agreement, though, because no such chance has ever been sighted, not six months ago when the talks, scheduled for nine months, began and certainly not now, when the bad blood between the Israeli and Palestinian sides has only increased. But seeing as how the talks were hopeless, the goal of each side has been to make sure that the other side ends up with the blame for their inevitable failure. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes out looking like the rejectionist, it would accelerate the growing boycott, sanctions and divestment (BDS) movement against Israel, especially in Europe, and put the wind at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ back in his diplomatic campaign in the United Nations, which envisages bringing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to The Hague. But if, on the other hand, Abbas gets blamed, then the Palestinians would be thrown on the defensive and Israel would be able to breathe much easier.
The import, then, of a heavily “pro-Israel” U.S. proposal is that it would all but compel the Palestinians to reject it, putting the blame – at least in American eyes – on them. The recent momentum of the anti-occupation movement would likely be blunted. Thus, the effect of Kerry’s incredibly dogged efforts and evident good intentions would be to strengthen the status quo – Israel’s 46-year military rule over the Palestinians – weaken the opposition to it and even further darken the dimming prospect of a Palestinian state arising alongside the State of Israel.
This is the opposite of what Kerry had in mind when he set out on his mission. But it’s exactly what Netanyahu has been playing for. And it appears the earnest, optimistic American has been played.
According to Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column last week, which basically confirmed earlier reports in the Israeli and Palestinian media, Kerry’s proposal – a kind of memorandum of understanding from which Israelis and Palestinians would negotiate toward a final agreement – includes “unprecedented” security arrangements for Israel along the Jordan Valley, which runs inside the eastern border of the envisioned Palestinian state. This signals that Israeli soldiers would be stationed on the territory of a Palestinian state for many years, something Olmert never asked for and which the Palestinians have rejected out of hand as a continuation of Israeli military control over their land.
Furthermore, the U.S. offer reportedly does not call for any Palestinian refugees from the seminal 1948 war to be able to return to Israel proper (the land where the refugees had previously lived). Olmert had offered to allow at least 5,000 refugees to come back, and Barak’s team was negotiating the matter with the Palestinians, for whom this is a cardinal issue of national dignity, and for whom an American offer of no returnees at all would likely not be taken well.
In addition, Kerry has allegedly gone along with Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians not only recognize the State of Israel, which they did in 1988, but that they also recognize it as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” which is a relatively new Israeli demand. The Palestinians reject it as prejudicial to the rights of the 20% of Israel’s citizens who are Arabs, and as a demand that they abandon their “narrative” of the century-old struggle between the two nations in favor of the Israeli narrative. And indeed, that is how Netanyahu framed the issue in a speech in Tel Aviv last week: “The conflict is not over these territories; it is not about settlements; and it is not about a Palestinian state either. … [T]his conflict has gone on because of one reason: the stubborn opposition to recognize the Jewish state, the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Also, on the all-important subject of Jerusalem, Kerry reportedly speaks of a Palestinian capital “in” the city’s eastside, which Israel conquered from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. But he has not said where or in how much of East Jerusalem that capital would stand, and as Netanyahu has always insisted on keeping every inch of it, the likelihood is that Kerry will retreat substantially from the 2000 (Bill) Clinton parameters. That document gave the Palestinians all of East Jerusalem’s Arab-populated neighborhoods as well as sovereignty (together with Israeli “symbolic ownership”) over the most contested site of all, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. On the Israeli side, Barak offered the Palestinians part of the Old City, while Olmert went so far as to offer to internationalize the Temple Mount and even the adjacent Western Wall, considered the Jewish people’s holiest site. It’s almost unimaginable that Kerry will ask Netanyahu to even come close to matching their offers.
Finally, while Kerry adheres to the traditional American view that Israel and a Palestinian state should be divided along the pre-1967 Six Day War border, with land swaps to accommodate Israel’s large “settlement blocs,” he has not said which land should be swapped – and here again, Netanyahu is asking to retain more land than Barak or Olmert did. The Israeli premier wants to keep the Hebron and Beit El settlements, too, which would cut deep into the heart of Palestinian territory and make a geographically viable state all the harder to carve out of the settlement-riddled West Bank.
Netanyahu has said all along that he will not be as “generous” as his predecessors in the prime minister’s office, and Kerry has tried not to alienate him. The result is that the secretary of state has moved further and further away from the Palestinians until they can hardly see each other anymore.
The Palestinian leadership is reportedly preparing to say no to the framework agreement and go back to the United Nations. Even one of the most moderate Palestinian officials, Yasser Abed Rabbo, was reported by Haaretz as saying “no Palestinian leadership can accept Kerry's formula for a framework deal, which [Abed Rabbo] says is vague when it comes to issues important to Palestinians and detailed regarding Israeli concerns.”
If the Palestinians do walk away and Kerry blames them for the talks’ failure, the Palestinians and their supporters may be able to turn the tables on the Americans by saying the agreement was so absurdly biased toward Israel that they had no choice but to reject it, so the true guilty party is Kerry himself. But while a diplomatic war with Washington might play well with the international left, it would not with Europe, whose economic and political support is crucial to the Palestinians. Nor, of course, would it go down well with Washington, whom the Palestinians probably can’t afford to alienate either.
Their best hope may be that the extreme right wing of Netanyahu’s coalition government rebels against the prospects of his saying yes to Kerry on any terms, and brings down his government. The rumblings of such an insurgency were heard in Jerusalem last week. But if, as it seems, Kerry’s framework agreement is so bad for the Palestinians that they’re guaranteed to turn it down, the extremists in Netanyahu’s government probably have enough sense to wait until it happens so Israel can come out of this ordeal as the “winner.” After all, Israel’s right-wingers, including Netanyahu, like the status quo, so they can live with it indefinitely; it’s the Palestinians who are pinned under foreign domination and demanding change, so the ball will be in their court. And thanks to Kerry, their already-Sisyphean task of upending the nearly half-century-long status quo looks like it’s about to get harder yet.
Larry Derfner is an Israeli journalist who blogs at +972 Magazine.