Bibi was not to blame for failure of peace negotiations.
Last week Gen. (ret.) Michael Herzog (brother of Israel’s opposition leader Isaac Herzog) wrote a remarkable article (.pdf) in The American Interest.
Herzog, who has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 1993 didn’t write his article to place blame (though he does) for the failure of the 2013-2014 talks overseen by then-Secretary of State John Kerry but “it is my sincere hope that this analysis will inform a meaningful policy debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
But if you Google Herzog’s name for the past week, precisely one news organization covered the article: The Times of Israel. Some blogs such as The Tower and Yaacov Lozowick have written about it too. One would think that an insider’s view of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians would draw a lot of attention, but it didn’t.
Presumably that is because Herzog didn’t blame Bibi first.
That isn’t to say that Herzog has no criticisms Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He wrote that Netanyahu made a bad choice by allowing prisoner releases as an inducement to get Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to participate in the talks. Herzog thought that a limited settlement freeze would have been preferable. He also believed that Israel put too much emphasis on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
But overall Herzog described Netanyahu as showing “seriousness, far more so than public accounts attest,” writing that the prime minister “made progress.”
Herzog wrote, that Netanyahu “by contrast [to Abbas], was immersed in the process. Every call with Kerry was preceded by a thorough preparatory meeting that he himself led, and was followed by one as well. It was evidently not an easy journey for him. He came under tremendous and conflicting pressures, yet he stayed the course.”
The Palestinians, in Herzog’s telling, were much different. He quoted Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat saying that the nine months that Kerry designated was “too much time,” for the negotiations to come to an agreement. As Herzog noted, “His statement succinctly reflects the Palestinian mindset I have witnessed for years. It is as if negotiations are simply about exacting what Palestinians perceive to be their rights, rather than engaging in a two-way give-and take.”
Herzog may write at the end it was the Israelis and Palestinians “who own the conflict; it is they who must live with its consequences. Any failure in a peace process is first and foremost their failure,” but the Palestinian mindset he described has to raise the question if any Israeli government could come to terms with the currently constituted Palestinians leadership.
“Much as many ask whether Netanyahu possesses the will or the capacity to make the bold decisions necessary for peace, I have serious doubts about Abbas,” Herzog wrote. “They are supported by his record (including the way he avoided responding to Olmert’s offer in 2008) and his demeanor. Aging, losing domestic legitimacy and focused on his legacy, he is even less prone to taking such risks.”
More generally, he observed that Israel is currently “lacking a willing and capable Palestinian partner.”
But perhaps his most surprising criticism is of Kerry. Reading Herzog, I was struck by two things: 1) he was unfailingly polite to Kerry 2) he was describing an absolute idiot when it comes to negotiations. The Times of Israel captured this nicely in the headline of the summary written by its diplomatic correspondent Raphael Ahren, “In politely devastating critique, Israeli negotiator skewers Kerry for dooming peace talks.”
Among other things, Herzog faulted Kerry for putting a nine-month deadline on negotiations which he characterized as “clearly unrealistic, given the very significant gaps and mistrust between the parties.” He added, “This should have been realized from the outset.” On more than one occasion Kerry misrepresented Israeli positions to the Palestinians leading to false expectations.
When the time came at the end of the nine months to present the American framework for peace, Netanyahu accepted it with reservations but Abbas never responded. Herzog isn’t the first one to report this, fellow negotiator Tzipi Livni did too.
Abbas didn’t just refuse to accept the framework. He turned around and made a unity deal with Hamas and then signed onto 15 international conventions.
Some have defended Abbas’s refusal to accept the framework because the Palestinians never received it in writing. But Herzog shot down that excuse, citing Americans involved in the negotiations who said that “when Abu Mazen came to see Obama on March 17, 2014, Erakat specifically asked not to be handed a written document, lest he be required to share and debate it with some Palestinian colleagues. Instead, the framework document was dictated to him verbatim, so as to afford him a degree of deniability.”
Herzog’s “bit surprising, though not earth-shattering” account of Netanyahu’s demonstrated flexibility, raised an “interesting question” according to Yaacov Lozowick, “The Netanyahu and Obama governments didn’t get along so well, as we all noticed, even up until the final days of Obama’s administration. If Netanyahu had actually moved significantly towards where Kerry wanted him, what was that final bitter speech in the State Department in [December 2016] all about? I pose this question for future investigation. Something doesn’t add up.”
(Prof Jacobson analyzed the speech here.)
I think Kerry’s frustration adds up very well. In the speech Kerry said:
That history was critical to our approach to trying to find a way to resolve the conflict. And based on my experience with both sides over the last four years, including the nine months of formal negotiations, the core issues can be resolved if there is leadership on both sides committed to finding a solution.
In the end, I believe the negotiations did not fail because the gaps were too wide, but because the level of trust was too low. Both sides were concerned that any concessions would not be reciprocated and would come at too great a political cost. And the deep public skepticism only made it more difficult for them to be able to take risks.
In the countless hours that we spent working on a detailed framework, we worked through numerous formulations and developed specific bridging proposals, and we came away with a clear understanding of the fundamental needs of both sides. In the past two and a half years, I have tested ideas with regional and international stakeholders, including our Quartet partners. And I believe what has emerged from all of that is a broad consensus on balanced principles that would satisfy the core needs of both sides.
Kerry ignored that he was stiffed by Abbas. He doesn’t even recognize it.
Part of it is as Herzog recounted citing U.S. officials, “since the U.S. side felt closer to the Palestinians on most issues, it believed greater effort was required to move Netanyahu.” If Kerry felt going in that Netanyahu was the biggest impediment to peace, then if he didn’t get peace, he would conclude that Netanyahu was the problem.
But the other part of it is what former Israeli Defense Minister Minister Moshe Ya’alon described as Kerry’s “messianic fervor” that what he was doing was for Israel’s own good. In other words Israel didn’t appreciate how much he cares for it. Or as Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent put it, “Here it is: Kerry loves Israel so much that he is taking action its democratically elected govt. believes are inimical to its interests.”
It’s frustrating that whenever Haaretz diplomatic correspondent finds his self-interested anonymous sources to smear Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace there are no shortage of news outlets willing to amplify his message, but when a serious insider challenges that conventional wisdom, suddenly no one is interested.
[Photo: Pete Souza / WikiCommons ]DONATE
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