Kerry said that despite progress having been achieved, his aides would continue to work towards removing all remaining stumbling blocks. He did not divulge just what progress he had made in bringing the two sides together, although Sa’eb Ereikat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, did concur that the secretary of state had achieved some success – having withdrawn an earlier statement in which he said that no breakthrough had been made. So what progress has been achieved?
We have no information as yet on what went on in the meetings Kerry held with senior Israeli politicians and security officials. But if we analyze the information that was available before he embarked on his latest mission, we can draw the following picture:
The Palestinian side expressed readiness to participate in meetings on any level even if the Israeli government rejected the three Palestinian conditions (a commitment to a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 with land swaps, a settlement freeze, and a prisoner release). Yet the Palestinians made clear that such meetings would not be considered as part of official peace talks, but only as an interim measure designed to help push Kerry's efforts forwards, expose the Netanyahu government for what it really is, and prevent the Obama administration from blaming the Palestinians for wasting a new opportunity for peace.
This official explanation given by the Palestinians for their flexibility is unconvincing, for the simple reason that the true nature of the Netanyahu government is well known–not only because of its words, but also its actions on the ground that are designed to undercut any attempt to reach a genuine peace settlement. In addition, the Obama administration is never going to blame Israel for obstructing peace efforts whatever flexibility the Palestinians show. In fact, it will most likely blame the Palestinians just as Bill Clinton did after the Camp David summit of 2000. What makes this the more likely outcome is the fact that Kerry asked President Abbas to agree to resume talks unconditionally. When Abbas replied that he had done that in the past to no avail, Kerry said, ‘But when you did that, Kerry was not around.’ It appears that the U.S. secretary of state is totally confident of his ability to reach a peace settlement before President Obama's second term ends. This naive belief risks turning him into a laughing stock if he fails to come to grips with reality before it is too late.
The Palestinian position is weakened by division. Not only do the Palestinians have to contend with the split between Fateh and Hamas, they also have to deal with disagreements within the PA itself. After the resignation of PM Salam Fayyad, his successor, Rami Hamdallah, only stayed in the post for two weeks before offering his own resignation. In addition, the Palestinians have to contend with particularly dismal economic and social conditions. The Palestinian people have lost all hope in their leadership and its ability to improve their lot. All this comes against the backdrop of general Arab indifference towards the Palestinian cause (because of the continuing turmoil in the Arab world), which presents Israel with opportunities rather than facing it with challenges – so much so that Kerry has been trying to persuade the Israelis to exploit the Palestinians' weakness and grasp a historical opportunity to achieve Israel's core objectives.
Yet because of the Netanyahu government's arrogance and extremism, it appears unlikely to seize the moment. Netanyahu believes that by waiting, he could get a better deal later on. In the meantime, Israel would continue to create new facts on the ground that would make its own vision of peace the only one feasible. Israel is not in a hurry simply because it believes that the status quo could continue for a long time yet. The Palestinian leadership is extremely weak, and acts as if it has no options other than to pursue bilateral peace talks under American supervision – despite the catastrophic consequences of such a policy.
Even when the Palestinian leadership chooses to pursue other options – such as mass resistance, internal reconciliation, or going to the UN – it appears to do so as a means to resume peace talks and not as a new strategy. In the last few weeks, President Abbas has been plainly saying that he was prepared to resume talks even if Israel agrees to two of his three conditions (Israel could choose between freezing settlements or agreeing to a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967). He even agreed to an undeclared settlement freeze. The Palestinian President had already promised that Palestinian efforts to gain membership of various UN bodies would be frozen.
Palestinian and Israeli negotiators held dozens of secret meetings at various locations in 2010 and 2011, at a time when the Palestinian leadership's official position was not to resume peace talks unless and until its conditions were met. Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the PLO Executive Committee also held a series of meetings with Israeli officials, including Binyamin Netanyahu and [former defense minister] Ehud Barak, while Ereikat met more than fifty times with his Israeli counterpart. At the time however, Ereikat fell out with the Jordanian foreign minister because of the latter's insistence that the exploratory talks launched in Amman in 2011 be resumed. Ereikat refused despite the fact that he was meeting with the Israelis at the time.
This explains why the Palestinians have been giving more and more concessions in order to resume peace talks. The weak Palestinian leadership could not be expected to act otherwise, especially as it had already been talking to the Israelis. It is as if the leadership is prepared to do anything in order to stay in power. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people have been kept in the dark, believing that their leadership was sticking to its conditions. This being the case, it would be far better to resume peace talks publicly than to continue them in secret. After all, secret talks can only further weaken the Palestinian position. What would be best however is to abandon the futile pursuit of bilateral talks once and for all, and to search for a new path that could achieve the Palestinians' national aspirations.
Regarding Kerry's mission, it appears that the only issue in which progress could be achieved is the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel since before Oslo. Their number is unknown, and their release is likely to be carried out in stages in order to ensure that talks continue as long as possible. As for the issue of Palestinian statehood within the borders of 1967 with appropriate land swaps, it now appears likely that the United States – rather than Israel – would commit itself to such an outcome. This would be a meaningless gesture anyway, tried previously by the Clinton and Bush administrations. What is important is that Israel commits itself to this principle – or that the United States pressures it into doing so. Neither option is realistic under present circumstances.
Only when (if) the Palestinians, Arabs, and the international community take the steps necessary to shift the balance of power and make the occupation unbearably costly for the Israelis could real progress be achieved.