Norman Finkelstein is the co-author, with Mouin Rabbani, of How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict (OR Books, forthcoming). He has warned for some time now that Israeli-Palestinian talks brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry might well succeed where previous rounds of negotiations failed, and reach an agreement to end the conflict—on Israel’s terms. In April, however, the diplomatic process derailed. I spoke with Norman about why Kerry failed, and what we can expect going forward.
You predicted that the negotiations process led by Secretary of State Kerry would culminate in an agreement ending the conflict. In fact, talks have broken down. What happened?
The Kerry initiative was launched out of the blue in July 2013, and in retrospect made perfect sense. Previous rounds of negotiations had come to naught largely because the Palestinians had refused to sign on to an agreement granting Israel’s bottom line demands: the annexation of its major settlement blocs on some 10 percent of the West Bank and the nullification of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. But Kerry and President Barack Obama spied an opportunity. The Palestinian leadership was now completely in thrall to the U.S. and lacked even the residue of nationalist principle that had been possessed by Yasser Arafat, while for various reasons the Palestinians were politically the weakest they’d ever been since the occupation began in 1967. The Kerry initiative was an attempt by Kerry and Obama to exploit Palestinians’ unprecedented weakness to foist on them Israel’s bottom line demands and in that way to end the conflict. I thought that Kerry is a shrewd political actor who has been in politics for a long time and who has some pretty good advisors, and so the prospects were, I estimated, better than 50-50 that he would succeed.
But I entered in a qualification that is worth remembering, not just to protect myself but also in order to anticipate where things are heading. I did think it was going to take time for international pressures to knock Israel into the realisation that it has to resolve the conflict. Even when compelling motives for a settlement exist, agreements do not necessarily ensue. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin drove the U.S. delegation to distraction during negotiations leading to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, while Arafat did the same during the various stages of the Oslo negotiations. The treaties look inevitable only in hindsight; politics is a delicate business, and in any such complex undertaking, with so many moving parts, negotiations can easily fly apart. I said that one of the smart things Kerry did was to begin early, giving himself two full years to line up all the ducks. In the event Kerry apparently thought he could pull it off much more quickly than I had thought possible.
My error was this: I thought that if Kerry presented Israel with an agreement that incorporated Israel’s own bottom line demands, then Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not put up quite as much resistance as he did. I figured he would kick and scream—the usual Israeli theatrics—but that he would come around fairly quickly. As it happened, Netanyahu simply felt no sense of urgency. Israel reached an accord with Egypt because it had suffered a major military setback in the 1973 war, and feared the outcome of a second round. It signed on to the Oslo accord with Palestinians because it had suffered a major public relations debacle during the first intifada, and worried about the army’s fighting ability if it got bogged down in policing the occupied territories. No comparable motive for ending the conflict existed this time around. Netanyahu, it’s clear, reached the conclusion that since the status quo is so comfortable, why sign an agreement? What’s the rush? Netanyahu is constitutionally a centre-right to far-right type of politician. That’s his natural milieu. And so while he theoretically could have formed a centre-left government to push through a settlement, he wasn’t prepared to risk his preferred and existing coalition for a battle that could easily be deferred to his successors. He figured, ‘we’ve got what we wanted. The U.S. has endorsed our bottom line demands, from which there is now no going back: Abbas has conceded them, the U.S. has them more or less in writing, and there’s no way the U.S. will accept anything less from the Palestinians going forward. So, now that we have that in our back pocket to pull out whenever we so desire, why not continue for now with the status quo? Why do I have to be the one to implement the withdrawal?’ Calculating that he had nothing to lose—Palestinian concessions could not be rescinded—and something to gain—preserving his coalition from extreme rightwing defections—Netanyahu refused to budge.
That’s where we stand now. The obstacle to reaching an agreement is Netanyahu, who wasn’t as easy a nut to crack as Kerry thought. I did not expect so much resistance from Netanyahu, but I was also clear that it would take time. So while the Kerry talks did derail, I don’t yet think that I got it wrong. This would change if Kerry decided to throw in the towel on the Israel-Palestine conflict and pursue his ‘legacy’ elsewhere. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. When Hamas and Fatah announced a government of national unity earlier this month, the U.S. could have refused to recognise it, in which case the diplomatic process would have been over. It didn’t do that. Instead, what I predicted would happen is happening: behind the scenes, the U.S. and the E.U. are turning up the heat on Israel.
Doesn’t Netanyahu’s resistance to Kerry’s efforts demonstrate that internal political pressures within Israel from the radical right are so strong that no Israeli government will sign on to an agreement—even one that incorporates Israel’s own terms for resolving the conflict?
There is compelling practical evidence that that’s not true. Netanyahu is not the only politician on the Israeli scene. There are other very shrewd politicians, like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who are coming out for a settlement along the lines of Kerry. To agree with the position in your question, you’d have to believe either that Livni and Lapid are bluffing, or that they’re politically naïve. I don’t think either of those are true. You could dismiss the Labour Party’s criticism of Netanyahu as point scoring, because Labour has no prospect of political power; but Livni and Lapid are intelligent politicians positioned firmly within the mainstream of Israel’s political spectrum. I don’t think they are playing games: they’re laying out an alternative scenario, which they think will resonate with a sufficiently large proportion of the Israeli electorate to enable them to push it through. Otherwise it’s very hard to imagine what they’re doing. Why is Livni still negotiating with the PA behind the scenes? Why did she just come out and say that the settlements are a disaster? Why did Lapid demand that Netanyahu declare his proposed final borders? Why are they saying all this, unless they genuinely think they can pull it off?
The two issues that dominated media coverage of the Kerry process before it derailed concerned the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and an enduring Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. Will these issues present significant obstacles to further efforts by Kerry to reach an agreement?
Neither dispute is sufficiently serious to prevent an agreement. It’s quite possible that the Jewish State issue will be preempted by legislation now pending before the Israeli Knesset. When the initial phase of the U.S. initiative collapsed in April 2014, rightwing Israeli legislators mooted legislation designating Israel a Jewish state. After objections by centrist politicians such as Livni, the proposed law was watered down, eliminating the most egregious clauses (but still offending the liberal sensibilities of some Israelis). If a version of the bill is passed, the Jewish state issue will become irrelevant, because recognising Israel will amount to recognition of it as a constitutionally Jewish state. The Palestinian leadership will surely capitulate on the issue, in any case, as recent comments by the Palestinian ambassador to the UK suggest.
The Jordan Valley is not a significant obstacle either. In the case of the Egypt-Israel agreement, it had to look as if full Egyptian sovereignty had been restored in the Sinai. There were stages of withdrawal, and provisions for demilitarisation, but in the end the international border had to be restored. In the same way, the map of the West Bank created by an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will have to look, if only for face-saving purposes, like something resembling a state, which means the Jordan Valley will be put in Palestinian hands, perhaps with an international presence along the border. Theatrics aside, everyone recognises this.
These are peripheral matters; the real issue for the U.S. is bringing sufficient pressure to bear on Israel to convince it that it is preferable to sign an agreement now rather than later.
Most people didn’t take the Kerry process seriously until the end, and now that it has collapsed, have already moved on. You’re convinced, however, that there is life in the old dog yet. What important developments have occurred since the derailment of the talks?
At the conclusion of the first phase of the Kerry initiative, in public and behind-the-scenesstatements, the U.S. pinned the lion’s share of blame for the breakdown in negotiations on Israel. Although Netanyahu reacted with outrage when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the Hamas-Fatah national unity government, the U.S. and E.U. declared that they could work with it. When Israel retaliated by announcing new settlement construction, the E.U. issued a harsh statement threatening renewed sanctions, prompting Israel to back off. It wasn’t just the usual suspects who joined in the chorus of condemnation. Normally comatose U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern for Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli prisons while Pope Francis, en route to Israel and Palestine, abruptly stopped in front of the Wall outside Bethlehem for a photo-op prayer. How much of the international reaction was quietly synchronised and how much was just coincidental, it’s impossible to say, but it cannot be doubted that Israel was left further isolated politically, causing prominent Israeli politicians and commentators to deplore Netanyahu’s failure of leadership. The most stinging rebuke, however, came from a most unexpected quarter. ‘I find it extraordinary over these past few years, the degree to which this government of Israel has interfered in our domestic politics in a way to which, if we had done the reverse, it would have created a firestorm’, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer publicly declared, sounding like a convert to the Israel Lobby thesis:
Unless, frankly, Israel’s leadership begins to understand that the United States is also a sovereign country, we’re going to continue to have problems…. The political ties between our two governments have never been as fraught as they are today, because the ties at the top have never been as bad as they are today…. Prime Minister Netanyahu, for reasons that only he can explain, does not like or trust the president of the United States. And the president of the United States, for reasons that he can explain, does not like or trust the prime minister of Israel.
And so, for the second time, the U.S. government now has a significant difference with Israel. The crisis in US-Israel relations will not affect the military and economic tracks, because those have their own independent momentum. U.S. economic aid and military cooperation with Israel will continue at high levels. On the narrowly political level, however, there is a real rupture. What we’re waiting for now is a political crisis that will jolt Israel. This could take various forms. For instance, there might be a crisis on the ground that goes to the U.N. Security Council, which produces a severe condemnation of Israel with a U.S. abstention.
(Incidentally, it is interesting to observe the complete impotence of the Israel lobby in all of this. With one development after another, Obama and Kerry go their merry way, and they don’t give a hoot about AIPAC. AIPAC is literally a zero factor.)
Let’s look at the Palestinian unity government in more detail. Why did Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) sign the deal?
For Hamas, it was an act of desperation. Hamas had zero cards to play, and so it accepted all the terms President Abbas laid out. The question is, what was Abbas’s motive? At the beginning, it seemed like he was just flailing. One day he would declare that they were going to shut down the PA, the second day he would threaten to go to the UN, the third day he would announce a unity government—there was no strategy. So it looked at the time as if Abbas was just doing this as a gesture of defiance. In retrospect, for all the public hand-wringing by U.S. officials, the formation of the unity government was probably tailored to American guidelines and likely enjoyed tacit American support.
Does Hamas’s participation in the unity government amount to acquiescence in Kerry’s terms?
Yes. If Abbas negotiates an agreement Hamas now has to accept it, and it knows that. As my co-author Mouin Rabbani says, Hamas probably won’t accept responsibility for it, so that when Palestinians realise that they got nothing, as they did after the Oslo accords, Hamas will be in a position to exploit their anger.
The irony is, in order to market this capitulation, Abbas will have to claim it as a Palestinian victory, while Netanyahu will anguish over Israel’s wrenching concessions for peace. It’s funny how history repeats itself. ‘Rabin in effect gave the Palestinian speech’, Edward Said observed after the Oslo accord was signed on the White House lawn in 1993, ‘whereas Arafat pronounced words that had all the flair of a rental agreement’. The U.S. will probably sweeten the pot with the promise of a ‘new Marshall Plan’ (its favourite cliché)—that is, a hefty bribe aimed at winning popular Palestinian support, even if grudging, for a second Palestinian Versailles, and it’s not beyond possibility that the tactic will succeed. An international rogue’s gallery has already been assembled, led by Tony Blair and Madeleine Albright, to tempt Palestinians with the prospect of ‘hundreds of thousands of new jobs’ if they embrace the U.S. initiative. Back in the day, the Oslo agreement was hyped with the prospect of Gaza being transformed into the ‘new Singapore of the Middle East’. Twenty years later, it’s more like the Black Hole of Calcutta.
What does all this mean politically for Palestinians and their supporters?
There is now no side to root for, so to speak. If Kerry succeeds or if Kerry fails—either way, it’s a disaster for the Palestinians, who are caught between U.S.-brokered capitulation and the miserable status quo. If the goal of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is, as it should be, justice and reconciliation, then the U.S. initiative, subsequently endorsed by much of the international community, is a sham. On all the ‘permanent-status’ issues—borders, East Jerusalem, settlements, refugees—Palestinians lose, Israel wins. Its defenders will deride this as ‘zero-sum’ reckoning, but what else is one to conclude if Palestinians get zero and Israel gets the sum total? It is hard to see how a settlement on Kerry’s terms will achieve historic reconciliation and not just pour salt in Palestinian wounds. The fact that the American plan is a sham, however, doesn’t mean that it can be safely ignored. If Palestinians sign on the bottom line, they will forfeit their essential rights under international law, especially because the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly will in short order ratify the result. The Wall will no longer be illegal; it will become Israel’s internationally recognised border. The U.S. plan will render the most formidable of Palestinian weapons, international legitimacy and international law, null and void.
We are now in a very precarious moment. There continue to be many factors weighing in favour of the Kerry plan, with Israel’s stubbornness the sole obstacle. It cannot be predicted whether or not Netanyahu will cave in to the escalating international pressure before Obama leaves office. But in a critical sense, it hardly makes a difference. Even if an agreement isn’t signed in the coming year, the terms of the Kerry initiative will almost certainly serve as the departure point of the next U.S. administration when negotiations eventually do resume. If and when sufficient pressure is exerted on Israel to sign on, unbearable pressures will then be exerted on Palestinians to capitulate. The PA will be hard-pressed to resist the full weight of international opinion, not least because it already agreed to Washington’s terms of settlement. The U.S. and the EU, supported by a broad swathe of influential opinion, will implore Palestinians to agree. Playing his role to the hilt, Netanyahu will anguish over how Israel has agreed to withdraw from fully 90 percent of Judea and Samaria in a painful concession for peace. Of naysayers, it will be said (quoting former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s tired phrase), ‘Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace’. If a popular Palestinian collective will to resist does, however, emerge, it will be the responsibility of the solidarity movement to patiently explain the reality of the US’s so-called two-state solution: that it breaches international law, as it shafts the Palestinians. The rallying-cry of such a movement must be succinct and unimpeachable: Enforce the law!
Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project.