Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent days managed to make the most of John Kerry's political plight, and win from the Americans a weak agreement in principle to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. There's not much more to add - it was a master stroke, which gave the prime minister the upperhand in several ways.
Primarily, the victory of the Pollard release allows him to neutralize the opposition from his government's right-wing flank to a deal that includes releasing even more Palestinian prisoners, not to mention a partial settlement freeze, in return for an extension of the peace talks.
Equally important is the humanitarian aspect. If Pollard is indeed released soon, the State of Israel will have finally fulfilled its obligations to a man to whom it bears the responsibility for ruined health and half a life spent in jail. The fact that Pollard could be released in 18 months anyway does not free Israel from culpability over his fate.
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By extending the talks, Netanyahu will have dodged a fresh breach with the US for a breakdown in the negotiations it has brokered, while also managing to keep the status quo in the territories for another year. The odds are low for a new intifada right now, but in the current climate in the Middle East, any drastic changes could have unexpected consequences, and Israel has an interest in not rocking the boat.
Israel will have made all of these gains due to Kerry's desperate desire to avoid a crashing failure both for himself and for the peace process. But the fact that the Americans agreed to include Pollard in the deal showed the Palestinians just how much Kerry in particular and the Obama administration as a whole are under pressure on this issue. It is no wonder, therefore, that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided not to be a dupe, and tried his own hand at blackmailing the Americans into some extra perks for the price of agreeing to extended negotiations.
Abbas' very public signing of appeals to international organization in Ramallah on Tuesday night, in the presence of the Palestinian leadership, was his own attempt at using leverage. It wasn't a Palestinian bid for statehood, but rather an effort to join several global treaties and international institutions in which the UN is involved.
Ultimately, the fact that Abbas signed the documents still does not mean that the Palestinians have submitted the requests, but the act made the expected international noise and Abbas got what he was looking for: Kerry canceled another trip to Ramallah planned for Wednesday in order to finalize the deal on extending the talks into 2015.
To be fair to Abbas, it has to be said that this dramatic step was also born of genuine anger. From his perspective, Israel violated its agreement with him to release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners, set for the end of March. The Palestinians view the prisoner release as tied to the round of negotiations due to end in April, and not to a continuation of the talks beyond that date, which has yet to be agreed upon.
In addition, Israel on Tuesday published tenders for the construction of more than 700 new housing units in Gilo, another move that angered the Palestinians, and one could say that the Palestinian Authority has a case for generating the crisis.
The Palestinian price
Who is going to pay the price? The Obama administration has just as strong an interest as Israel in keeping the negotiations going. Currently, Washington is juggling five world crises: Crimea-Russia, the civil war in Syria, the negotiations with Iran, the tensions between North and South Korea, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Each of these conflicts places the US in a difficult dilemma as to whether it should use force, which deepens the image of a "chained giant" that it currently has in the international arena. Should the talks between Israel and the Palestinians fail, it could further weaken the Americans' image, status and influence, mainly in our neighborhood.
Therefore, the US will do everything in its power to prevent a complete deterioration of the negotiations, which may later compel it to stand by Israel and even use its veto to support Israel at the UN and in the Security Council.
Although pretending to do Israel and the US a favor by participating in talks on a diplomatic agreement, the Palestinians too have an essential interest in continuing the negotiations, and know very well the price they'll pay should the talks grind to a halt.
For instance, the Palestinians will pay a heavy financial price if they turn to the UN. Not only will the American government be forced by its Israel-loving Congress to end funding, but the EU will also stop its aid to the Palestinian Authority. Abbas has a great amount of control in the West Bank, mainly because the economic situation is far better than in most of its neighboring countries.
Abbas also knows that he will eventually have to hold elections in the PA, and the improved financial situation in the West Bank is the joker up his sleeve against the militant Hamas. Furthermore, Abbas knows the existence of some kind of negotiations, even ones devoid of substance, allows him to continue his strategy of winning small battles against the Israeli government. Another prisoner release and another building freeze mounts up to a fine achievement over time.
The Palestinian president is emulating the pragmatic Zionist style, whose slogan was "Another dunam, another goat." And in truth, he has been quite successful. Should the current deal go as planned, Abbas will get 500 prisoners and three building freezes, thereby matching Hamas' victory in the Gilad Shalit deal. This is Abbas trying to maximize his successes.
Plan B beckons
There is no need to go back over the benefits to Israel in prolonging the negotiations. However, there is one major problem with the motives of the two sides in extending the talks: It's not necessarily the only alternative for either, especially for Israel. We must keep in mind that prolonging the negotiations is not expected to lead to any breakthrough or a peace treaty, it is simply buying time.
Buying time is justified if you use it well, but most likely the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians are doing it so that by mid-2015 they'll be in the same situation and the same place. The US interest is rather clear, Obama is waiting for his second term to end so that he can finally give a sigh of relief and pass the thorn in his side on to the president elected in 2016. But for the Israelis and the Palestinians, this is just time to sit back and do nothing, while Israel actually has two alternatives to the agreement to prolong the negotiations.
The first is to announce a complete settlement freeze for as long as the negotiations continue, an offer the Palestinians could never refuse. The second is what is known as "Plan B" - a bolder and more desirable unilateral announcement by Israel about its future borders and which areas of the West Bank it will annex and which it will leave for one Palestinian government or another.
There's no doubt that Plan B would elicit international condemnation and send the Palestinians scuttling to United Nations institutions. But that is to be expected, whether the talks implode this time or the next. At least the State of Israel can determine what it wants, even if it leaves the actual implementation to a later date.
Reverting to Plan B is not so ideal at present, given that Netanyahu and his government are not politically built for it. Therefore, we are doomed to haggle like market vendors over the number of prisoners we free, which kinds of construction we freeze and which we don’t, and spin our wheels in the mud on a road to nowhere.
"Full gas in neutral" is the name of the game that we are now playing.