Tuesday’s deadline came and went without a “framework” for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, let alone the “final status” deal that Secretary of State John F. Kerry originally hoped to deliver this week. The breakdown in the negotiations is frustrating, but it doesn’t follow that Kerry has squandered his time or his prestige during nine months of diplomacy.
Under pressure from Kerry and veteran U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk, representatives of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have engaged in lengthy and detailed discussions. The talks reportedly have touched on daunting “core issues” such as the borders of a Palestinian state and the possibility that Israeli troops might be stationed in the West Bank even after a final agreement.
But finding common ground on these and other issues — including the status of Jerusalem and Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state — once again proved elusive. After downsizing his goal from a final agreement by Tuesday’s deadline to a framework, Kerry had to lower his expectations again. In the end, the negotiations were derailed by a cascade of provocations and unilateral actions on both sides.
Israel reneged on a promise to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by the end of March, and it continued with plans for the construction of Jewish housing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, moved to join 15 international conventions, and then his Fatah party announced a political reconciliation with the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has refused unequivocally to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The last step moved Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare the negotiations dead.
For his part, Kerry gained nothing by dangling the possibility that the U.S. might grant early release to Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. citizen sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel. And it was no doubt unwise of Kerry to use the emotionally charged word “apartheid” in any context at all.
But we don’t fault him for making a solution to this conflict a priority. Peaceful coexistence between Israel and a Palestinian state isn’t a panacea for all of the conflicts in the Middle East, but it would end a conflict that has inflamed the region for decades and could still abruptly escalate into violence, as it did in the intifada of 2000. What’s particularly frustrating is that the outlines of an eventual agreement have been obvious at least since the Oslo accords in the 1990s.
Even Kerry recognizes that there now must be a pause in his shuttle diplomacy. That doesn’t mean he should abandon the effort to bring the parties together. But even intense engagement by the U.S. is unlikely to succeed if the two parties aren’t serious or self-confident enough to make difficult decisions. And they aren’t.