Well aware that Secretary of State John Kerry has a full dance card these days testifying to congressional committees on the case for military action against Syria, the Palestinians have selflessly volunteered to grind the peace negotiations with Israel to a halt so he doesn’t miss anything. That’s the takeaway from today’s New York Times story on the latest snag in the peace process.
The Times headline is “1967 Border Is a Source of Strain in the Israeli-Palestinian Talks,” but it quickly becomes apparent that the truth is slightly different. As the Times reports:
Signs of strain emerged Monday around the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, as a senior Palestinian official said Secretary of State John Kerry had “guaranteed us in writing” that negotiations would start from the 1967 lines, and American officials suggested he was not telling the truth.
Nabil A. Shaath, the Palestinian commissioner for international relations, said the Palestinians had agreed to enter the talks only because of the guarantee. He declined to provide a copy, but when asked if it was signed by Mr. Kerry personally, said: “Absolutely. We wouldn’t have done it without this.”
The real problem, it seems, is that the Palestinians don’t want to start serious negotiations. The background is that the Palestinians supposedly asked for one of three preconditions for negotiations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: releasing terrorist prisoners, freezing construction in settlements, or starting the talks from the 1967 lines. Netanyahu opted for the prisoner release.
That didn’t, in the end, satisfy the Palestinians, who claimed that they had received private assurances that the Obama administration would try to hold Israel to one of the preconditions Netanyahu didn’t agree to: a settlement freeze. And now the picture is complete: the Palestinians claim, apparently without proof, that the Obama administration also agreed to enforce the other precondition to which Israel never agreed.
And that lack of proof is problematic for the Palestinians, because the American moderators are growing exasperated with the Palestinians. They told the Times in response that not only are the Palestinians making this up out of whole cloth, but that the Times should know by now not to believe anything out of the Palestinian camp unless they also hear it from Washington:
But American officials denied there was such a document, which would have been a significant gesture to the Palestinians and could have enraged Israel. “We have always said that if you don’t hear news about the talks from senior U.S. officials, you can’t count on it being reliable,” Marie E. Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “This is a good example.”
One of the reasons it’s so tempting for those involved in negotiations to leak to the press is that rumors can quickly become facts to those who hear them often enough. Being the first to establish a compelling narrative of any one situation can be to that party’s great advantage. And that seems to be what the Palestinians are doing. The Times notes that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas claimed last week that he only resumed negotiations because of an agreement over the 1967 lines, and the PA’s top negotiator Saeb Erekat made the same claim in a Ramallah-based newspaper over the weekend.
Of course, all leaks are not created equal. The Palestinians are shaping a narrative designed to negate the talks that have already begun. The Israelis seem to suspect the general doom-and-gloom attitude of the Palestinians is intended to undermine the negotiations from the outset and delegitimize any progress they might make that the Palestinian “street” wouldn’t like. Their respective complaints, in fact, are telling:
Israeli leaders complained to Washington in recent days about a series of leaks and downbeat assessments by Palestinians, citing the agreement both sides made from the beginning that only American officials would publicly discuss the diplomatic efforts. Palestinians had previously complained that American envoys were not present during the talks.
The Israelis are upset the Palestinians are simultaneously breaking agreements while insisting Israel be held to agreements that don’t exist. The Palestinians are angry they have to be in a room with Israelis. Though Israeli leaders are presumably not thrilled with the fact that Palestinian negotiators appear to be fabricating their latest cause for outrage, they are refusing to comment on it.
Perhaps that’s because they don’t put much stock in the credibility of the source, Nabil Shaath. As Elliott Abrams notes, this wouldn’t be the first time Shaath has made up claims about the American leadership. And of course it wouldn’t be the first time the Palestinians concentrated their energy on finding excuses, however suspect, to pocket concessions without making any of their own.