by Ron SkolnikIF YOU’VE BEEN following the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for as long as I have, it’s hard to imagine that the day will come when the U.S.-brokered negotiating process reaches the end of the road. Having survived countless spasms of violence and diplomatic crises, the peace process has become a near-permanent fixture in our lives and cognition.
And while there might be disagreement in Israel and within the American Jewish community as to whether the peace process could actually bring peace, the vast majority would likely doubt that the process we’ve come to know so well could disappear any time soon. Like the mythological Phoenix that always regenerates from its ashes, or that knock-down inflatable clown you had as a kid that refused to stay down, the U.S.-sponsored talks — to paraphrase an old Timex ad — seem to “take a licking but keep on ticking.”
RECENT STATEMENTS by senior American diplomats suggest, however, that significant change is in the wind. In the wake of the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic initiative, the U.S. seems to be moving inexorably toward a fork in the road, and preparing two alternate diplomatic postures: either a more assertive U.S. involvement, more like binding arbitration than the heretofore assumed role of mediator; or a laissez faire approach that would expose Israel to the slings and arrows of international isolation.
Kerry himself has given an indication of possible new directions in U.S. policy that break with the traditions of the last two decades. Two sets of remarks, on-the-record and off, give a hint of this emerging thinking.
Speaking to reporters in Ethiopia on May 1st, two days after his nine-month time-frame for the talks ended with a whimper, Kerry indicated, for the first time, that the U.S. might no longer accept the parameter for negotiations originally demanded by former Israeli PM Ehud Barak — namely that, “nothing is agreed upon” in Israeli-Palestinian contacts “until everything is agreed upon.”
Barak had insisted upon this condition due to the political pressure he faced at home and based on his fundamental distrust for then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat who, the Israeli leader feared, maintained an insatiable appetite for all the land of Eretz Israel/Palestine. President Clinton, nearing the end of his second term and eager to bring the two parties together, agreed to incorporate Barak’s condition as one of the modalities for the summer 2000 Camp David summit.
What Clinton probably never realized, though, was that, if allowed into the wrong political hands, the “nothing is agreed upon” stipulation could be abused as a tool for reversing, rather than advancing, the negotiating process. Notwithstanding his demand, Barak himself accepted the results of Camp David as the foundation for continued talks with the Palestinians, through the Taba meetings of January 2001, right before he was voted out of office. Similarly, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (2006-9) reportedly built on the results of Israeli-Palestinian efforts at Taba, developed a relationship of trust with Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, and nearly completed an historic deal with the Palestinian leader before being forced to resign amid a corruption scandal.
For Binyamin Netanyahu, though, the work of his predecessors was meaningless. In April 2008, with Olmert still in office and representing Israel in talks with Abbas, Netanyahu, then head of the political opposition, told newspapers that, if elected, he would not honor any “invalid” agreements made by the Israeli Prime Minister. Then, on his first day back in office after winning reelection in 2009, Netanyahu dispatched his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to brazenly inform the Obama administration and the world that the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis Declaration of 2007 “has no validity.” The declaration, part of the Annapolis Process engineered by President George W. Bush, was the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement to officially declare a two-state solution to be the end goal of the peace process, and it laid the basis for the subsequent Olmert-Abbas talks.
FIVE YEARS and two failed U.S. initiatives since President Obama came into office, Secretary of State Kerry (along with the White House) seems to have had enough. Speaking in Addis Ababa, Kerry subtly but firmly undid “the nothing is agreed” formula, and laid down a new rule — that negotiations could not simply start from scratch and cover the same ground each time they re-launched. Wrapped in words of praise for the “progress” achieved by the negotiators, Kerry promised to disclose publicly “at some appropriate moment of time” the concessions that were made so that there could be no backtracking or slip-sliding in the future.
Six days earlier, Kerry had actually gone even farther in envisioning a more aggressive U.S. posture. At a meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington DC, in remarks that he assumed were off-the-record, the Secretary of State reported that the administration was considering the possibility of putting on the table a comprehensive American plan and telling the two sides to, in Kerry’s words, “take it or leave it.”
Kerry’s remarks were not an isolated event or off-the-cuff musing. Several days after the April 29th expiration date for the U.S. initiative, Nahum Barnea, arguably Israel’s most prominent political columnist, reported on an interview he had conducted with a “senior American official” who was personally involved in the Israel-Palestine talks. The official (generally believed to be Martin Indyk, the head of Kerry’s team) warned that “external pressures” might be employed to push Jerusalem towards an accord, and that the U.S. might publicize Kerry’s proposed framework agreement in order to bring decision-making to a head.
The U.S., in other words, has grown weary of never-ending talks and is showing no inclination of going down that same open-ended road any longer. Holding talks just to maintain the semblance of movement towards ending the occupation has been a hallmark of the two long-serving Likud party Prime Ministers of the last three decades — Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir. But this tactic has now officially fallen into American disfavor, and the U.S. seems to be moving ever closer toward the previously unthinkable “imposed solution.”
But the senior official interviewed by Barnea also hinted at the other, almost diametrically opposed, option available for U.S. diplomats: To do nothing at all.
IT WAS PETER BEINART who first predicted an upcoming period of American “benign neglect,” right after Obama’s 2012 re-election. Based on conversations with “senior administration officials,” Beinart reported that “Team Obama” would “stand back” so that Israel, “feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation,” hopefully prompting a course correction in Jerusalem. While the U.S. would still support Israel militarily, Beinart noted, it would no longer stand in the way of non-violent third-party pressures.
Just before John Kerry managed to reboot talks in July 2013 for one last nine-month try, we got our first taste of what “benign neglect” might look like. In what Israel government officials described as an “earthquake,” new European Union guidelines went beyond a simple boycott of settlements, and prohibited any cooperation with, or funding for, Israeli entities that maintained any ties, direct or indirect, with settlements in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights. Neither the State Department nor the White House was willing to comment on, much less condemn, the EU directive, and EU officials reported that Washington was tacitly supporting the move. Kerry, in fact, went so far as to suggest that a suspension of the guidelines be made a quid pro quo for greater political moderation on the part of Netanyahu. Despite Israel’s vociferous protests, the EU decision was widely credited for pushing a panicked Netanyahu government to re-enter talks in order to douse the growing international flames.
The “senior American official” cited by Barnea now suggests that benign neglect could be Washington’s policy of the future. Laying the blame for Kerry’s failure squarely at Jerusalem’s feet, the official broadly hinted that the U.S. might no longer go to the mat for Israel. Asked about the possibility of a growing international boycott of Israel, Barnea’s interviewee offered scant reassurance: “America will help, but,” he gave notice, “there’s no guarantee its support will be enough.”
Just to make sure his message was clearly received, the American official expanded on his meaning: Israel, he scolded, should, “read the map. In the 21st century, the world will not keep tolerating the Israeli occupation. The occupation threatens Israel’s status in the world.” With negotiations dead, the EU would feel free to activate its sanctions. As for the Palestinians, “nothing is stopping [them] from turning to the international community... They will get their state in the end — whether through violence or by turning to international organizations.” And should the Palestinian Authority collapse as a result of Israeli economic sanctions, the official warned, Israel should certainly not expect the American taxpayer to foot the $3 billion per year bill to look after 2.5 million additional West Bank Palestinians.
The senior official related to Barnea that the U.S. had not yet decided which fork in the road to take. The Secretary of State himself noted that Washington now needed to, “pause, [and] take a hard look at these things.” And while neither attached a time frame to the upcoming assessment period, President Obama, at a recent press conference in South Korea, seemed to hint that the U.S. wait another six months before starting to change tack. In other words, once the constraining influence of the November midterm elections was past.
Over the last few weeks, much has been made of Secretary of State Kerry’s privately-expressed warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state in the absence of a two-state solution. But, in the context of the critical policy choices the Obama administration will need to make soon, the Kerry-apartheid controversy is a distraction — an almost trivial, and largely contrived, semantic sideshow that has more to do with the dictates of diplomatic etiquette than the stresses of geopolitics.
America indisputably remains Israel’s best and most powerful friend, and Jerusalem needs to be concerned less with Washington’s choice of words and more with its menu of practical options moving forward.
With the two-decade-old negotiating format in place since the Oslo accords now losing the last shreds of its credibility, Israel, and the American Jewish community, should be focused on what comes next. Neither the shmaltzy, clichéd words of denial issued by AIPAC, nor the angry shoot-the-messenger bluster of Danny Danon, arguably the second most powerful figure in Israel’s ruling Likud party, is a substitute for the sober, clearheaded policymaking needed as a new diplomatic reality begins to unfold.
Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political analyst and columnist. Until recently he directed the non-profit Partners for Progressive Israel, and for many years served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.