We’ll know within the next month, and perhaps even within the next week, whether there is any chance for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during Barack Obama’s second term. Yet even if the negotiations between the parties survive past the April 29 deadline, there is little chance that they will succeed. The talks, which Secretary of State John Kerry initiated last July with enthusiasm and promise, are floundering. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is determined to blame the Palestinians if the talks fail, but blame should almost certainly be assigned to Netanyahu and the Israelis.
Kerry has clamped down on leaks about the talks. And with some justification: Attempts to negotiate agreements through public jousting invariably fail. But there have been enough leaks, and I have talked to enough people who have either talked to the negotiators or been involved peripherally with the negotiations, to construct a tentative outline of what has transpired. But be warned: Some of the details remain murky, probably to the negotiators themselves.
Last July, the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to begin talks on a two-state solution. To smooth the way, Kerry got the Palestinians to put aside their campaign at the United Nations against the Israeli occupation and the Israelis to release, in four stages, 104 Palestinian prisoners. There were misgivings on both sides. Within the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), skeptics outnumbered those who believed an agreement with the Israelis was possible. They were won over by the promise of the prisoner release. Netanyahu’s governing coalition was also split, and probably would have to be reconstituted if he agreed to a two-state proposal.
According to Kerry’s plan, which both sides endorsed, the Israelis and Palestinians would reach a “final status” agreement by April 29 of this year. Kerry specifically rejected the idea of another “framework” that would merely outline areas of potential agreement. The Quartet of the U.S., European Union, United Nations, and Russia had tried that approach a decade before, and it had failed abysmally. So Kerry wanted the parties to resolve key issues, including borders, Jerusalem, security, water rights, and refugees, in nine months. Formal talks began in August, but broke down by November. No agreement was reached on any of the final status issues. In addition, Netanyahu had introduced a new issue—that the Palestinians must not merely grant recognition to Israel, as other countries had done, but recognize Israel specifically as a “Jewish state.”