There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.
The second conclusion is that the way the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, blew up the talks bodes ill for any future peace process:
Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT. The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.
It’s one thing to threaten action, set a deadline, and then carry it out. That is essentially what the Palestinians did with their UN gambit. But the idea that the process could just end on a Palestinian whim can poison the well (or whatever’s left of it).
That’s because for the Palestinians, once the process begins it’s in the hands of Abbas, Erekat, and some high-level members of Abbas’s cabinet. That is not the case for Israel. As the report details, the day the Palestinians signed their applications to the UN agencies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding meetings throughout the day in his office seeking to reassure skeptics in his coalition without alienating Livni and the peace processors to their left. Additionally, he had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party that held the third-most seats in the governing coalition.
The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was an unmitigated disaster for the peace process. It was more than just a setback: it raised the possibility that any Israeli leader who risked his government for a peace process would get a more terroristic Palestinian government than he or she started with and would have imminent war looming. The Palestinians are willing to pull the plug without warning. That’s a lesson their Israeli and American counterparts will learn.
And it is related to the third conclusion to be drawn from the essay. The authors relate a conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu raises the issue of Palestinian incitement. Eventually, the following exchange occurs:
Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”
“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”
That comment may paint Netanyahu as defensive, but in fact he’s right–and the essay demonstrates that convincingly. Kerry and his negotiating team, as well as the Palestinian leadership, consistently misread the Israeli political scene and Netanyahu’s reaction to it. Autocrats don’t seem to understand democratic politics, and Kerry’s team exhibited no real grasp of what it takes to form a consensus and keep a government intact in Israel.
The reporters themselves even got tripped up by Israeli politics and leaned heavily on trite and completely inaccurate narratives. At one point in the article, they refer to Netanyahu as “a right-wing ideologue”–an absurdly reductionist and patently false claim. If Netanyahu, the famous dealmaker and pragmatist who elicits much Israeli wariness precisely because he is not an ideologue, can be classified as such, then everybody and nobody is an “ideologue.”
Elsewhere in the piece we are told, indefensibly, that “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud.” This is a common, but no less justifiable, trope. It is a sign either that the writer can only understand politics through shallow American analogies or that the writer assumes that to be true of the reader. Or both, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the “Tea Party” contention is obviously untrue, and those who offer it with regard to Israeli politics are doing their readers a considerable disservice.