The unraveling of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace could be chalked up as yet another US failure in this region, but also a victory for the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday rejected Israeli conditions for continued talks, instead seeking unilateral action at the United Nations. In doing so, he showed an uncharacteristic willingness to risk the displeasure of the PA's largest single donor to advance the Palestinian agenda internationally.
In two decades of peacemaking, Mr. Abbas and his predecessors have never drawn a firm line on issues such as an Israeli settlement freeze, the release of Palestinian prisoners, or lack of implementation of previous peace agreements, says Diana Buttu, a former member of the Palestinian negotiating team.
“As much as they say it’s a red line, it turns into a gray line,” Ms. Buttu says. “[Abbas’s decision] for me was good because it established for the first time that there is indeed a red line.”
That has bolstered the beleaguered Palestinian leader, who has been hard put to demonstrate to Palestinians any tangible benefits to favoring negotiations over violence. It is likely to stir frustration, however, in the US.
Mr. Kerry’s dogged shuttle diplomacy succeeded last summer in getting both sides to agree to a nine-month period of talks, which was slated to end April 29. As a confidence-building measure, Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners, most of whom had been held since before the 1993 Oslo peace accords for fatal terrorist attacks. But when the time came last week to release the fourth and final batch of prisoners, Israel conditioned their release on Palestinians agreeing to another six months of talks.
Despite a frantic visit from Kerry, the two sides failed to overcome the impasse. The PA considered itself released from its commitment not to seek unilateral action at the United Nations.
After obtaining Abbas’s signature last night, the PA officially applied today to become a signatory to 15 international conventions, among them treaties against torture, corruption, and genocide, as well as the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, according to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.
The step, which Abbas has threatened to take since the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state in November 2012, has long been opposed by Israel as not conducive to peacemaking, especially if the conventions could be used as forums for bringing war crimes against Israel.
Many Palestinians are happy that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, defied American pressure despite his reputation as being relatively docile.
“The Israelis and the Americans even believed that Abu Mazen didn’t have the courage to do so. And they don’t care about his requests,” says Hafez Barghouti, a Palestinian author and former editor of the PA daily newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida. “So when Abu Mazen took this step, lots of people are supporting him and his popularity is up, because it’s a kind of dignity for the Palestinians.”
Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and a longtime diplomat himself, says that an unhappy end is better than months of discussing what he characterizes as “marginal” issues – whether the PA should recognize Israel as a Jewish state and what kind of military presence Israel will be allowed to maintain along the West Bank-Jordan border, rather than key issues like borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem.
“I think it’s a pity, but I prefer the talks will collapse to a situation where you go on with what we just had in the past four to five months of Kerry speaking separately to the sides on issues that are not the core issues … that we have to tackle if we really want to reach an agreement,” says Mr. Liel.
While Palestinians are cheering Abbas’s courage, Liel would like to see some American courage. After months of intensive discussions with all the key players, Washington is able to and should put forward a detailed proposal for a peace deal, he says.
“I really think that the Americans have to rethink and if they really give up and the sides are not going to talk again in the near future, there should be a courageous American plan on the table,” Liel says. “Then we will know at least publicly where we stand, and where the pressure is to be put.”