A peace process left in tatters

WASHINGTON — Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Other times, they just get worse. We’ll find out soon which of those descriptions characterizes the collapsed Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The negotiations were a determined effort by Secretary of State John Kerry and his special adviser, Martin Indyk, to create viable Palestinian and Jewish states. But despite Kerry’s relentless enthusiasm, the two sides never really came close. They are further apart now than when the process began, with the mistrust even deeper.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wanted a map of the territory a Palestinian state would occupy. He asked for it when the talks began last July, and he was still demanding one last month when the talks shattered, with the U.S. pleading for nine more months of negotiation under an American “agreed framework.” But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would never deliver the map, probably because he wanted to avoid the political battle with settlers who would be outside the future borders of Israel.

The issue of Israeli settlements humiliated the Palestinian negotiators and poisoned the talks, according to statements by U.S. negotiators. When Israel announced 700 new settlement apartments in early April, before the April 29 deadline of the talks, “Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry told a Senate panel. Warned Indyk at a gathering of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Rampant settlement activity — especially in the midst of negotiations — doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future.”

Abbas was also a huge disappointment. He effectively shut down as a negotiator midway through the talks, whether in response to Netanyahu’s intransigence or because of his own unwillingness to make compromises. The high-water mark for Abbas was probably the beginning of the process when he responded favorably to a security plan drawn up by Gen. John Allen, the retired U.S. commander in Kabul, who had been tapped by Kerry to propose arrangements that would protect Israel if there were Palestinian state.

Abbas was “ready to put his state’s security in American hands,” Indyk told the institute. The Palestinian leader accepted that his future state would be disarmed, but he previously argued that after Israeli troops left the Jordan Valley, say five years hence, border security would be guaranteed by NATO (a solution that Israel, mistrustful of the Europeans, opposed). Now Abbas decided that America, Israeli’s closest ally, could control his airspace and land access in the future. U.S. negotiators saw it as a big concession, but Israel opposed that, too.

Abbas’ brooding turned to truculence. Kerry had gotten Arab League foreign ministers to support recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a fundamental demand for Netanyahu. Abbas went to the Arabs and got them to reverse this helpful position. When the U.S. began laying down its agreed framework, with “bridging proposals” to narrow the gaps on the most contentious issues, such as refugees and Jerusalem, Abbas never responded. Rather than accept the framework “with reservations,” as planned, Abbas balked. U.S. officials sensed that Abbas was in such a deep funk about “that man,” as he called Netanyahu, that he simply wanted out.

Israelis and Palestinians both attacked Kerry during the process. A low point came when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described the U.S. secretary of state as “obsessive and messianic.” Netanyahu, who maintained a warm relationship with Kerry and often smoked big cigars during their five-hour-plus meetings in Jerusalem, seems to have shown a hint of flexibility late in the process, offering movement on some core issues. But by then it was too late.

The question is what comes next, after the failure of this intense U.S. effort. The Palestinians are threatening to charge Israel under the Geneva Conventions that protect civilians in occupied territories. The Israelis may retaliate by cutting off money to Abbas’ government and announcing new settlements. If this happens, Abbas says he will dissolve the Palestinian Authority — and insist that Israel pay the $3 billion cost and endless headaches of governing 2.5 million Palestinians. U.S. officials don’t think he’s bluffing.

If these catastrophic developments ensue, Israel will find itself living with a one-state solution, after all. Optimists think this might provide reality therapy, showing that Israel can only survive as a healthy Jewish state if a Palestinian state exists, too. But after this last exercise in frustration and bitterness, there aren’t many optimists left.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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