Listening to the Palestinians
The biggest failure in the American diplomatic quest to midwife the State of Palestine has been a failure to listen to the Palestinians, who don't hide much. (One wag said that generally parties to a negotiation lie on the outside and tell the truth in private; the Palestinians, however, lie in private and tell the truth in public.) This is not a failing only of the present administration, but it is reaching a fever pitch as Secretary of State Kerry alternately cajoles and threatens the parties to accept his view of what the disposition of their conflict should entail.
At the World Economic Forum in May, Mr. Kerry told Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres that he had an agreement ready and waiting in his pocket, should they want to come on stage and sign. Having not seen the text, they reasonably enough declined. Undeterred, Kerry took his parameters and tried to sell them piecemeal, dashing from Jerusalem to Ramallah. "This has become a commute," he joked to the reporters.
On his last dash before the weekend snowstorm, Kerry tried to leave the impression that he's got things under control and that a tentative April deadline for a complete accord can still be met. "We remain hopeful that we can achieve that final-status agreement. Why? Because we are absolutely confident... that for both sides, and the region at large, peace can bring enormous benefits."
Kerry assumed that the Palestinian bottom line would be independence, money and a wedge between the U.S. and Israel. So he promised to raise $4.2 billion in private investment for the West Bank with the aim of increasing Palestinian GDP by 50%, cutting its unemployment by 66% and nearly doubling median Palestinian income. The European Union quickly chimed in with vague but expensive-sounding support for Kerry's deal. He quashed Israeli angst over a three-stage release of Palestinian prisoners from prior to Oslo, including some very bloody murderers. He publicly denigrated Israel's security requirements, and its commitment to peace, and threatened a "third intifada" and an "increasing isolation of Israel; there will be an increasing campaign of the de-legitimization of Israel that has been taking place on an international basis."
And above all, he promised the Palestinians an independent Palestinian State -- yes, alongside Israel, but why quibble? It isn't a quibble to the Palestinians. There is no Palestinian consensus to whether/how to accept Israel as a permanent, legitimate part of the region and concede the mistake of 1948.
When the Palestinians were insufficiently grateful for American financial largesse and the gratuitous slap at Israel, Mr. Kerry threatened them with the possibility that the third Israeli prisoner release would be delayed. This prompted an angry outburst from Nabil Abu Rudaineh, Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman, and from Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aid to Abbas. "We won't accept any delay in the release of prisoners," Abu Rudaineh said. "Also, there will be no peace without Jerusalem." Abed Rabbo was reported in The Times of Israel to have said the U.S. was using the prisoners to "blackmail" the Palestinians to accept a vague framework deal that fails to meet Palestinian demands.
The proximate cause of their unhappiness was Kerry's bow to Israeli security in terms he surely knew Israel wouldn't accept. "We are working on an approach that both guarantees Israel's security and fully respects Palestinian sovereignty," referring to an American security proposal that would station the IDF along with "international" forces in the West Bank and along the Jordan River, a requirement of King Abdullah of Jordan as well as of Israel.
But if you guarantee Israel's security, you guarantee its legitimacy and its longevity. The Palestinian movement hasn't come to that point.
No thank you, said longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "We want to achieve a peace based on Israel's withdrawal from lands occupied in 1967. We won't accept limiting Palestinian sovereignty over our land." Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine radio that Kerry was trying to "appease Israel through agreeing to its expansion demands in the (Jordan) Valley under the pretext of security."
A "deal" that legitimizes the State of Israel and its security requirements obviates the so-called "right of return" which postulates that Palestinians who left the territory that became Israel -- and their descendants -- are entitled to go to where they claim to have come from, namely pre-1967 Israel.
In an interview with a Lebanese newspaper, the Palestinian Ambassador to Lebanon, Abdullah Abdullah, said Palestinian refugees would not necessarily become citizens of any new Palestinian State. "They are Palestinians, that's their identity. But ... they are not automatically citizens. Even Palestinian refugees who are living in [refugee camps] inside the [then-Palestinian] state are still refugees. They will not be considered citizens." He added that the new state would "absolutely not" issue Palestinian passports to refugees, lest they be understood to be citizens of Palestine. "When we have a state accepted as a member of the United Nations, this is not the end of the conflict. This is not a solution to the conflict. This is only a new framework that will change the rules of the game."
Palestinian fealty to the "right of return," and objection to an Israel with "secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force" (the promise to Israel of UN Resolution 242) are incompatible. No Palestinian leader can make that concession on behalf of others. Khaled Abu Toameh, Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post got to the heart of the intra-Palestinian struggle, a place Secretary Kerry has never been: "The Hamas announcement [that no negotiated settlement would be acceptable] serves as a reminder that any U.S.-brokered deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not mean the end of the conflict." Not only is Hamas opposed, according to Abu Toameh, but most of the organizations that comprise the Palestine Liberation Organization (of which Fatah is only one member) would reject it as well.
If Secretary Kerry would leave off the hubris of thinking that everyone wants what he thinks they ought to want -- he might find himself closer to a definitive American position. Not a "peace agreement" -- "peace" was never on the table -- but a definitive understanding of the degree of internal difficulty in the Palestinian position, and a definitive understanding that, in fact, the Israelis and Palestinians do not seek the same end -- and neither seeks the end the United States has put on the table in the form of an American bridging proposal.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.