When I was a kid I used to have a wooden Brio train set. The wooden engine and wooden carriages had little magnets on each end, and using these magnets you could string them together into a train. By moving the engine, you could move the whole train because the magnets held them together.
Even better, though, was if I put a carriage on backwards. Then, the magnets would repel. I would push the back carriage and the one in front of it would move forwards around the track, without the two carriages ever touching. Sometimes, the carriage in front would keep on moving further away even after I’d stopped moving the one at the back.
This, essentially, was Western policy on promoting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians ever since US President Barak Obama’s early interventions in the process. From the day that the US administration announced that negotiations shouldn’t restart until Israel froze all settlement construction, the West has heaped pressure on Israel, demanding that peace talks with the Palestinians immediately resume. Threats and condemnations made it clear that the longer the talks were delayed, the more pressure and sanctions Israel would face.
But that pressure also created a repelling magnet. The longer there are no talks, the more pressure on Israel. The more pressure on Israel, the stronger Palestinian President Abu Mazen felt and the stronger his diplomatic position became. Pressure on Israel to return to talks became pressure on the Palestinian Authority to refuse to talk, because refusing would lead to more pressure on Israel.
Nearly three years ago I met with the UK’s Foreign Office as a part of a delegation. They told us that they were considering more ways to bring both sides back to the table. I said that they were pressuring the wrong side. Minister Netanyahu was saying then (as he still says) that he was prepared to start talks tomorrow. It was the Palestinians who were refusing. I said that if I was advising Abu Mazen, I would tell him to keep refusing, because the longer he said ‘no’ the more that Israel — not the PA — was punished.
For years, this situation has persisted. The world has pushed Israel, and has been confused to find that the Palestinians moved too without the sides getting any closer. The PA has continued its unilateral steps in the United Nations, steps designed to give them even more leverage via the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Last week’s EU guidelines are a perfect example of the sort of pressure that doesn’t actually achieve anything constructive.
If I wanted to bring the two repelling carriages together, even the four-year-old me understood that I needed to hold onto both of them and push them together. Last week, John Kerry finally did the diplomatic equivalent, bringing massive pressure to bear on Abu Mazen to negotiate with Israel again. We don’t know for sure what this pressure involved, but it reportedly included both using the Arab League and the threat of losing $500 million in aid.
This approach – pressuring the Palestinians and not just Israel – is what led to Kerry’s Saturday announcement that talks were back on.
Of course, once I let go of the two carriages they would quickly move apart again. Kerry had been gone only a few hours when Palestinian spokesmen began suggesting that the talks might not happen.
In order for these talks to get anywhere, John Kerry, the USA, Europe and the rest of the West will have to keep pressure up on the Palestinian Authority and cut out the threats and pronouncements against Israel. Anything less and they will be encouraging Abu Mazen to walk away from talks for good.