Why Negotiations Collapsed – American Perceptions and Future Indications

Effective foreign policy requires a balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. Alliances require careful maintenance and no surprises while adversarial relationships sometimes require unpredictable responses. It is the unique gift of the Obama administration to have reversed this equation.

The collapse of peace negotiations was wholly predictable and has finally taken place. Efforts are now being made to assign blame and exert pressure on the parties. In a series of off the record interviews with Israeli newspapers, unnamed American officials involved in the negotiations have quite predictably put most of the blame on Israel. Careful reading, however, reveals more about America than it does Israelis or Palestinians.

In a wide-ranging interview with veteran Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, blame was systematically assigned to Netanyahu and his government and a single, overarching cause: “people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements.”

“Settlements” are indeed a primary issue, both for peace negotiations and for Israeli politics. But “settlements” have become a kind of deus ex machina for both domestic and international critics of Israel, the first and last explanation for why bad things happen.

One of the more remarkable statements from Barnea’s interlocutor shows just how little understanding there is regarding “settlements” as an Israeli political issue. “We didn’t realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.”

Since the 1980s there has been a predictable manner in which low and mid level Israeli committees embarrass prime ministers engaged in peace negotiations with announcements of construction tenders, some for projects far in the future. This is a major Israeli political problem, but reasonably informed American observers should at least be aware of it.

Amazingly, the Americans appear not to have been. Instead, they reacted with outrage, which is more foolish than simply being surprised and disappointed, since it rewards the Israeli right wing. It also betrays just how ill-informed American diplomats appear to be about the convoluted, if not demented, nature of Israeli politics and bureaucracy. Allowing Abbas to collapse the talks because of housing tenders issued for Gilo – a Jerusalem neighborhood that no reasonable observer could possibly expect to be evacuated – is doubly so.

The outsized and deeply personal nature of the negotiations agenda in American foreign policy is reflected elsewhere. Moshe Ya’alon’s overly blunt outburst against Kerry, in which he said the Secretary of State was only interested in winning a Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement at a time when American allies were under threat around the world, is thus characterized as deeply hurtful; “the insult was great.”

At the time American officials reacted with even more pique: ““We were shocked by Moshe Ya’alon’s comments, which seriously call into question his commitment to Israel’s relationship with the United States.”

Ya’alon’s remarks were accurate but ill-considered, and were in keeping with many being made by nervous American allies. But the American response then and now seems to be that Israelis should simply shut up.

Barnea reports that the US perceives the hero of the recent negotiations to be Tzipi Livni, who “fought for all her might to promote the agreement.” This may be so, but characterizing Livni as the righteous woman of the hour simply amplifies the longstanding perception that she is the Obama administration’s favored successor to Netanyahu. This will not do her any good politically.

Despite it all, and to Kerry’s credit, progress was made and an agreement was outlined. But one obstacle remained, Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Here too the American official betrays something bordering on criminal ignorance:

“We couldn’t understand why it bothered him [Abbas] so much. For us, the Americans, the Jewish identity of Israel is obvious. We wanted to believe that for the Palestinians this was a tactical move – they wanted to get something (in return) and that’s why they were saying ‘no.’

Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is, for Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, if not the majority of Palestinians, a declaration that Jews have historic rights as a nation and a people, not simply a religion. Such a declaration would end the conflict once and for all by mandating that a Jewish nation-state may stand alongside a Palestinian state. And for those reasons it was out of the question.

The American habit of seeing Israel as a Jewish state is comforting, but the inability to understand that Palestinians refuse to do so out of religious convictions that Jews are a religion, not a people entitled to sovereignty in their historic homeland, is absurd. If the Arab-Israeli conflict has a “root cause,” this is it. But American blindness is not surprising, since the religious context of international affairs has never been well-understood by American policymakers, and has, since 9/11, been deliberately obfuscated, denied, and pushed far to the background.

Finally, Barnea’s interview betrays the understated American strategy of pressuring Israel with threats of international boycotts. This approach goes back at least a year, with statements by Kerry and enshrined as policy in President Obama’s notorious interview with Jeffrey Goldberg prior to the AIPAC meeting in March 2014.

Barnea’s interviewee made the threats clear: “The international community, especially the European Union, avoided any action during the negotiations. Now, a race will begin to fill the void. Israel might be facing quite a problem.”

As with Kerry’s and Obama’s statements in the past, European states and corporations have been given explicit license to explore boycotting Israel. European foreign ministries and the European Commission, pressured by anti-Israel NGO’s that they themselves fund, will rush to the task.

Rarely has a bludgeon been wielded so blatantly by American administration against an ally. Kerry’s haphazard use of the term “apartheid” makes the message unmistakable.

Historical outcomes are never inevitable but they are frequently predictable. So it was in the case of Kerry’s latest efforts, where the pitfalls were obvious and self-made. As more details emerge there will be much blame to be shared by Israelis and Palestinians. America, however, will take the lion’s share.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.