Israelis and Palestinians share responsibility for the collapse of Middle East peace talks. That was the message delivered on Thursday by US special envoy to the peace process Martin Indyk, in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Israel issued tenders for 4,800 settlement units during the talks, he noted, while on the Palestinian side, accession to international treaties and reconciliation with Hamas had been “unhelpful” to US efforts to rescue an already faltering process.
More generally, Indyk argued, the parties’ lack of any “sense of urgency” made it impossible to bridge the gaps between them. Israeli politicians and their constituents were in no rush to abandon a “comfortable status quo,” while Palestinian officials found it “easier” to “appeal to international bodies in their supposed pursuit of ‘justice’ and their ‘rights’” than to “make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace.”
As a diagnosis of the talks’ collapse, Indyk’s speech flattered Israel. As unnamed “senior American officials” — Indyk apparently among them — had explained to veteran Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea earlier in the week, the negotiations were not derailed by “both sides.” The “primary sabotage,” they insisted, “came from the settlements.” Far from lamenting the Palestinians’ evasion of necessary compromises, the officials listed Palestinian President Mahmoud ‘Abbas’ many concessions, including on issues at the core of the conflict. Whereas Indyk’s speech credits Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with having displayed a measure of “flexibility,” the officials made clear that Netanyahu at most, and at the last minute, and only in reference to his own extremist positions, budged an “inch.”
We did not, as Indyk suggests, need another six months of talks to “define” what those positions were. Leaked internal documents from previous rounds, published by Al Jazeera three years ago as the Palestine Papers, delineate them with painful clarity. They show that Israel’s terms for settling the conflict have remained consistent for more than a decade: annexation by Israel of the major settlement blocs, on approximately 9 percent of the West Bank; and a nullification of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.
Spying an opportunity, Secretary of State John Kerry adopted these terms as his own and sought to impose them upon the Palestinians. Exhausted and wholly dependent on American and European aid, the Palestinians put up little resistance. Indeed, whereas Palestinian objections to Israel’s annexation of the settlement blocs derailed previous negotiations at Annapolis in 2008, this time around the blocs barely figured on the agenda. The reason, as confirmed by the American officials interviewed by Barnea, was that their fate had been decided. Indeed, according to Israeli President Shimon Peres, ‘Abbas acquiesced in “the establishment of settlement blocs” already in 2011. Picture Kerry’s dismay when Netanyahu, presented with an agreement awarding Israel permanent control over the choicest chunks of the West Bank and limiting the implementation of the right of return to a level acceptable to it, rejected his state’s own long-standing demands as insufficient and insisted, instead, on “complete control over the territories…forever.” No wonder Indyk has threatened to quit.
It merits emphasizing what the Kerry process’s derailment does and does not represent. Indyk’s speech is illuminating in this respect. The equivalence he posits between Israel’s settlement construction and Palestinians’ signing of international treaties makes sense only in the context of negotiations conducted outside the framework of international law. The contemptuous scare quotes he wraps around Palestinian “rights” and “justice” recall President Bill Clinton’s furious response when Palestinian diplomats at Camp David in 2000 insisted on their legally recognized borders as the baseline for negotiations: “This isn’t the Security Council here,” he fumed. “This isn’t the UN General Assembly…. I’m the president of the United States.”
The rationale behind this dismissal of the law is straightforward. There exists an overwhelming international legal and political consensus on resolving the conflict that repudiates Israel’s position on all the core issues in dispute. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak observed, “on the matter of borders, the entire world is with the Palestinians and not with us.” The US has been unwilling to pressure Israel to accept this international consensus, and so the US-led peace process has been defined, since its inception in the early 1990s, by a rejection of international law as the basis for resolving the conflict.
The Kerry process was not, then, a valiant if over-ambitious attempt to realize the two-state solution as understood by the overwhelming majority of the international community. Nor does its collapse — whether temporary or permanent — demonstrate the impossibility of achieving a two-state solution. That was never on the table, because the forces that would be required to put it there — mass Palestinian resistance backed by an international solidarity movement — have yet to materialize. Indeed, while misleading as an account of the talks’ failure, Indyk’s speech at WINEP is nonetheless revealing of the limits of what the “success” of any process led by the US could mean. His is the lament not of violated principle, but of opportunism frustrated.