Following nearly nine months of intensive and frequently fraught negotiations, the most recent chapter of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks appears to be coming to a close. On April 25, President Obama said: "There comes a point at which there just needs to be a pause and both sides need to look at the alternatives."
The parties have been engaged in negotiations for months – what was going on?
In July 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – the first such talks in three years – with a goal of reaching a peace agreement within nine months. Each side agreed to a series of conditions – including the avoidance of public commentary about the negotiations – along with a number of good faith gestures. Israel agreed to release 104 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons in four separate phases, including many prisoners convicted of terrorist attacks on Israelis. The Palestinians agreed to freeze their campaign to gain membership and recognition as an independent state in various international organizations.
Within a few months, U.S. officials conceded that the parties were unlikely to conclude a final peace agreement by the April 29, 2014 deadline, and the U.S. focused the parties on developing a "framework agreement" which would have provided an outline for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and extend the negotiating process into late 2014/early 2015. Each side was expected to agree to the framework, although they could note "reservations" on specific clauses.
For much of the early part of 2014, negotiations appeared to be aimed toward completing the framework document, which was reported to include extensive formulas for security arrangements, borders, and a description of Israel as a "Jewish state."
What about earlier reports of some kind of an agreement in early April?
Recent weeks saw frenzied activity on a number of fronts. With the April 29 deadline looming, there were intensive efforts by Secretary Kerry and his negotiating team to get the parties to agree to extend the negotiating period for one year.
There was also tension over the scheduled March 29 release of the final 26 prisoners from Israeli jails. The release was complicated for many reasons, but fundamentally, the Israeli government was hesitant to release prisoners with "blood on their hands" when there were indications that the Palestinians were balking at extending the negotiations beyond the April deadline.
Secretary Kerry flew to Jerusalem on March 31 to facilitate the extension of negotiations along with the scheduled prisoner release. Reports indicated that the U.S. and Israel had reached a "circular agreement" involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the US. Israel would agree to an extension of the peace negotiation period, a release of the final 26 prisoners (including 14 Israeli Arabs) from Israeli jails, a future release of 400 more prisoners (Israel would determine who), a partial construction freeze in the West Bank. The Palestinians would agree to the negotiation extension, and continue to refrain from their campaign to gain recognition at international organizations. It was also widely reported (but never confirmed) that the US offered to release Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for passing classified documents to Israel. The reported addition of Pollard to the equation elicited many strong reactions among Israelis and Americans. ADL issued a statement saying that the Pollard issue should not be linked with the peace process.
On April 1, in a move that caught both the U.S. and Israel by surprise, Abbas appeared on Palestinian TV, and signed applications for full membership in 15 international conventions, in what is, at a minimum, a violation of the spirit of the Palestinian Authority's July 2013 pledge. The move came without any warning, taking both Israeli and American negotiators by surprise. Palestinian spokespeople said the decision was due to the Israeli stall on the release of prisoners, as well as continued building projects in East Jerusalem.
In reaction, Secretary Kerry cancelled plans to meet with Abbas on April 2, and the reported "circular agreement" apparently fell apart.
Why was the Palestinian move to full membership in international organizations/ conventions problematic?
The Palestinian campaign to gain recognition as an independent state by the international community is an effort to circumvent direct negotiations with Israel while gaining the benefits of statehood.
Israel, the U.S. and the EU are opposed to this effort, seeing it as confrontational and unconstructive. Such unilateral action makes negotiated reconciliation - which will lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state - even more elusive, while bringing no real concrete benefits to the Palestinian people.
The Palestinian Authority began pursuing international recognition as an independent state in 2011. They first attempted to gain full UN membership through the Security Council. When the opposition of Security Council members made it clear this route was not viable, they applied to upgrade their status to "non-member state" in the UN General Assembly, which they achieved in 2012. The PA also gained full membership in UNESCO in 2011.
So why did Israel announce that it was suspending the negotiations?
In recent weeks negotiators met on a number of occasions, with momentum again building towards the pending April 29th deadline.
Negotiations were called off following another surprise announcement by the Palestinian Authority on April 23 that it had concluded yet another "unity agreement" with Hamas. The agreement calls for the establishment of a "unity" Palestinian government within five weeks and Palestinian elections in six months.
Hamas, a U.S. and E.U.-designated terrorist organization, and Fatah, the Palestinian organization which controls the Palestinian Authority, are long-time rivals, and have been officially split since the 2007 take-over of Gaza by Hamas. There have been a number of unity agreements announced over the past seven years but all have fallen apart.
After a five-hour long meeting on April 24, Israel's security cabinet decided to suspend negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, declaring "Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for Israel's destruction." Prime Minister Netanyahu stated: "Instead of choosing peace, Abu Mazen (President Abbas) formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel….The agreement between Abu Mazen and Hamas was signed even as Israel is making efforts to advance the negotiations with the Palestinians. It is the direct continuation of the Palestinians' refusal to advance the negotiations. Only last month Abu Mazen rejected the framework principles proposed by the United States. Abu Mazen has refused to even discuss recognizing Israel as the national state of the Jewish People. He violated existing agreements by unilaterally applying to accede to international treaties and then formed an alliance with Hamas. Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace."
ADL issued a statement calling the Israeli decision to suspend talks "fully justified."
Why is the agreement between Fatah and Hamas problematic? Isn't Palestinian unity a good thing?
In uniting with Hamas, the Palestinian Authority/Fatah is formally aligning itself with a terrorist organization which continues to engage in rocket attacks against Israeli civilians and unabashedly not only rejects Israel rights to exist, but also calls for its destruction.
The international community has set three criteria which Hamas must meet prior to any international recognition and engagement: recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce the use of violence and terrorism, and accept previously negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date, Hamas has met none of these requirements, and while some Palestinian Authority spokespeople have stated that these elements might be in the formal unity agreement, so far Hamas has not indicated that it intends to compromise on any of these principles.
Palestinian unity is in principle a good thing, however, if that unity represents a move towards rejectionism and extremism and away from peace and reconciliation, it portends more upheaval, isolation and disappointment for the Palestinian people, and makes the dream of Israeli-Palestinian peace even more remote.
So what comes next?
It is unclear. At this time, negotiations are suspended and the spotlight moves to developments between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. A State Department spokesperson said the chief American negotiator Martin Indyk remains on the ground in Jerusalem and is in touch with both sides. Analysts note that the Israeli statement left the door open to the resumption of negotiations should the Fatah-Hamas agreement not proceed.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have reiterated the U.S. commitment to facilitate peace negotiations, but as President Obama said on April 25, "Realistically, there is one door and that is the two parties getting together to make some very difficult compromises. We will continue to encourage them to walk through that door. Do I expect they will walk through that door, next week, next month or even in the course of the next six months? No."
What's going on inside Israel?
Public opinion polls in Israel continue to show that the majority of Israelis (approximately 68% according to the most recent Peace Index poll) support peace negotiations with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. This support has been consistent over the past two decades. Over the past ten years, however, a growing majority of Israelis (approximately 69% in the same Peace Index poll) have expressed strong doubts that negotiations will lead to peace.
The Palestinian Authority's scuttling of the talks through the agreement with Hamas and the applications to international conventions and statutes is likely to intensify doubts among Israelis about the Palestinian commitment to a negotiated end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.