Brinkmanship Risks Taking Israelis and Palestinians to the Edge

The wider international community can play a role at this critical moment. To keep open the window for a negotiated solution, Europe and the United States must make clear their expectation that the Palestinians should refrain from unilateral steps and stay at the table.

In a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israelis and Palestinians that it was their responsibility to take the tough decisions. He was forced to return to Washington last week without an agreement to extend negotiations beyond their current deadline at the end of April. He highlighted unhelpful steps on both sides.

It need not have been this way. Midday on Tuesday 1 April, Israeli negotiators thought a package deal to extend the talks for another nine months was all but done. They were ready to release another 400 prisoners on top of 26 remaining from a list agreed in July 2013, and restrain settlement construction. To help Netanyahu force the deal through a sceptical Israeli cabinet, the US would release former-US intelligence officer Jonathan Pollard, caught spying for Israel thirty years ago.

Israeli cabinet ministers were on standby to vote, with Netanyahu hoping to secure a narrow majority, and Secretary Kerry expected to fly in to close the deal. Then they switched on their televisions to see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signing applications to join fifteen international conventions, in a brazenly choreographed, televised ceremony in Ramallah.

The Palestinians claimed to be responding to Israel's failure to release on time, four days earlier, the final batch of 26 prisoners, including fourteen Arab Israelis, promised to them under a July 2013 deal. That deal involved Israel releasing 104 prisoners serving long sentences for terror offences, in return for the Palestinians negotiating for nine months without taking unilateral steps to gain international recognition.

The calculated announcement of hard line Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel the same Tuesday, to issue tenders for new construction in East Jerusalem, added fuel to the fire. Indeed, Israeli lead negotiator and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni lambasted Ariel in a weekend interview for his attempted sabotage. But her frustration was also directed at the Palestinians for their impatience. For the Israeli negotiators, the decision to sign up to the fifteen institutions was out of all proportion to a delay of four days in the release of the prisoners, effectively kicking over the negotiating table.

In meetings over the past week Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been working more constructively to try and put humpty dumpty back together again, but the 15 letters have created a new obstacle. For Israel, it is politically untenable for a Palestinian unilateral step to go without a response. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to respond with unilateral measures of his own. Foreign Minister Lieberman is looking over Netanyahu's shoulder threatening new elections rather than revive the package deal as if nothing had happened.

Did the Palestinians deliberately intend to derail the deal? Lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denies that, and they may have felt they needed to respond publicly to the delay in the prisoner release, and possibly also the East Jerusalem housing tenders. It is notable that the Palestinians chose fifteen international conventions, but avoided applying to actual UN bodies or the International Criminal Court. But if this was intended as a shot across the bows, it was extremely high risk.

Another possibility, no less disturbing, is that the Palestinian leadership do not agree about what they want, and President Abbas is simply maneuvering to manage domestic pressures and internal divisions. Saeb Ereket had to distance himself last Thursday from an entirely new and sky high list of Palestinian demands for resuming the talks reported in the Palestinian media. He claimed they came from an unauthorised Fatah official and were not formal PLO positions.

The question Livni was bombarded with in a lengthy TV interview last Saturday evening was, "Do you really think you have a Palestinian partner?" Her political credibility rests on her claim that a deal is possible, but she is hard pressed to convince the Israeli public that the Palestinians are really interest in a negotiated agreement.

So where do the parties go from here? Netanyahu appears to want to keep the train from sliding off the tracks. Though he has threatened Israeli unilateral measures, he has not rushed to carry anything out, and is giving time for the negotiators to find a solution.

The wider international community can play a role at this critical moment. To keep open the window for a negotiated solution, Europe and the United States must make clear their expectation that the Palestinians should refrain from unilateral steps and stay at the table.

The alternative to continued negotiations is a dangerous cycle of unilateral action and response risking a descent into destabilisation and potential violence, which will greatly harm both sides. The gaps and distrust in such circumstances will only increase.

The last nine months of talks have not been entirely inconsequential. Contrary to appearances there have been serious discussions on all the core issues. The signs are that Netanyahu is ready to live with reference to 1967 lines as basis for a territorial agreement in a US drafted framework document. It is Abbas that has so far rejected Kerry's framework draft, objecting to terms of mutual recognition which include reference to Israel as the Jewish nation state and Israeli security requirements along the Jordanian border.

Closing the gaps may seem a herculean task, and both sides need to make considerable movement. But the chances of success will be maximised if the Palestinians do not believe they can escape compromises in the negotiating room, by leaping into the welcoming arms of the UN.

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