A few weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was greeted by the applause of his staff as he boarded his plane after a hard fought and successful bout of diplomacy. The achievement? Getting Israeli and Palestinian officials to agree to peace talks under the terms of the Oslo Accords, which were created and signed in 1993.
Getting the two sides to start talking again on the basis of a preliminary agreement that is now 20-years old – and was supposed to have been long since replaced by the creation of a durable peace pact and an independent Palestinian state – doesn't seem like much of an achievement. But on July 19, Mr. Kerry and his aides were convinced – nay they knew – that this time would be different.
Hopefully they enjoyed the warm glow while it lasted. Because what Kerry and the Obama administration are discovering this week is that "an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations," as Kerry explained the breakthrough in July, doesn't usually amount to much, at least not on the time-frame of US presidencies. Oslo itself was meant to establish a basis for "direct final-status negotiations," yet has yielded little of consequence in that direction in the past two decades. The whole schmear was supposed to be wrapped up by the end of 1999.
In the years since, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have expanded enormously. Successive Israeli governments, supportive of the settlement enterprise and with less to fear by the way of Palestinian militants from the West Bank (or in Gaza, for that matter, given how tightly the population there is bottled up), have turned rightward and shown little willingness to slow the de facto annexation of land the Palestinians had hoped and expected would be theirs.
A pattern has been repeated endlessly of trumpeted "peace process" breakthroughs followed by promised settlement expansions – a series of false dawns that have undermined the credibility of each successive US government that has proclaimed a new day.
The Obama administration's realization that they might be mired in the same-old peace process hamster wheel is what we witnessed today with State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki's declaration of "serious concerns" over the (wait for it...) latest announcement of a settlement expansion by the Israeli government yesterday.
Palestinian officials, supposed to sit down with Israeli counterparts on Wednesday to resume negotiations, are saying the announcement made by pro-settler Housing Minister Uri Ariel yesterday are a sign of bad faith. Mr. Ariel said that 1,200 new homes would be built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, considered occupied territory by the Palestinians and most foreign governments, and was defiant in making his announcement.
"No country in the world accepts diktats from other countries on where it is allowed to build or not," said Ariel yesterday. "We shall continue to market apartments and build throughout the country."
Take that, peace process!
As for Kerry's State Department, they're not happy about the state of affairs, but they've signaled they aren't going to make much of a fuss about it. About the strongest thing Ms. Psaki said today was "we don't accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity." But a new fact on the ground is a real thing, whether it's called "legitimate" or not.
To be sure, Israel did announce today that it would release 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a confidence building measure. The vast majority of the people on the list have been in prison since before the Oslo Accords were signed, and their release may bring some good will for Abbas and his decision to reengage. The Palestinian president has spent years refusing to negotiate until settlement expansion stopped. Since it carried on despite his protestations, the calculus now appears to be that he might as well get something else while settlement expansion continues, instead of nothing.
Will talks of some kind happen on Wednesday? Probably. Martin Indyk – the former US ambassador to Israel, Obama's envoy, and a peace process veteran – is already on the scene, and Abbas will have enough breathing room from the celebrations of the prisoner release not to face too much backlash from allowing his people to participate (though many Israelis are furious that men convicted of killing Israelis will be getting out of jail).
But the prospect of meaningful progress, in an atmosphere that looks and feels just like the past five or so declared "breakthroughs?" Pretty bleak. The Israeli press has been reporting that Obama's people signed off privately on settlement expansion to balance the prisoner releases. But the US are not the people who need convincing.
It's the Israelis and Palestinians that will have to live with the consequences of peacemaking or its failure. And when both or either side is more focused on what the US wants, the long-sought progress seems to have a habit of sinking into the mud.