Two articles and two blogposts have just appeared that tackle the failed peace negotiations conducted by John Kerry during the second Obama Administration. One, by a participant (with a long history of participation in these efforts going back to 1993), “Inside the Black Box of Israeli-Palestinian Talks” by Michael Herzog, in American Interest, and the other, a strong critique of the first piece, by Raphael Ahren, the diplomatic correspondent of the Times of Israel, and two extensive blogposts, by Yaacov Lozowick, and David Gerstenman at Legal Insurrection that criticize the widespread lack of interest of the mainstream media on this revealing text, in part, they suspect, because it doesn’t indict Bibi.
Like most diplomatic issues written by negotiators, one has to read between the lines at what is not said. The issues here are crucial, since much of the logic that this information undermines, lies at the heart of Kerry’s final maneuvers to condemn the settlements as the roadblock to peace, and the vast international consensus – diplomatic and journalistic – that stand behind him.
For Herzog, there’s enough blame to go around:
All parties made mistakes, each exacerbating the others’ and contributing to a negative dynamic.
For Ahrens, Herzog’s piece is a “politely devastating critique” that “skewers Kerry for dooming the peace talks.”
What strikes me in reading Herzog is how much – despite his explicit conclusions – he provides an abundance of clear evidence for the fact that (as Lozowick also notes) the real reason the negotiations failed is because the Palestinians never had any intention of negotiating. So blaming Kerry (or Bibi) for “dooming the peace talks,” is something like blaming a hospital emergency team for blowing the resuscitation of a mannequin.
If there’s blame to apportion here it’s a) the Palestinians for never negotiating in good faith, and b) the Americans, especially Kerry, for blaming Israel for killing the mannequin, and c) the Israelis like Herzog for never catching on including (apparently) still now.
In reviewing this material, let me lay out what I think were the negotiating strategies of the sides for the last 25 years, a perspective repeatedly borne out by events, including the information in Herzog’s article:
(NB: I’m a medievalist, trained to piece together fragments of evidence into a larger picture. When the CIA launched after the WWII they tapped medievalists (including one of my professors, Joseph Strayer, specifically because of this training. So maybe I see more because I know less. Certainly, in these matters, I am far from an expert.)
The Americans believed (to a man/woman?) that if only they could get the Palestinians and Israelis to agree on a deal that gave the Palestinians a state on the other side of the “’67 borders,” that would bring peace and solve a whole bunch of problems in the Middle East – linkage – including saving Israel from deciding between democratic or apartheid. They formally adopted a cognitively egocentric notion that the Palestinians really wanted a state, but needed to get the best possible deal to “sell it” to their own people. The way to get it was to pressure the Israelis to make concessions that would bring the Israelis into (what they imagined was) “the zone of possible agreement [between Israelis and Palestinians]” (Indyk), and then go to the Palestinians with a great deal (from the US point of view), and thereby achieve the holy grail of Nobel Peace Prizes, the deal that really is so obvious, you should be able to solve it with an email.
The American position represents a dogmatic extension of Oslo Logic after it blew up in Israel’s face in 2000 (Y2K Mind). It takes as a given that the Palestinians will accept a deal +/- on the “1967 borders,” but they can’t concede too much or they’ll lose face with their people. Applying that “reading” to the negotiations since 2000 (Bush/Condoleezza, Obama/Clinton/Kerry) has a) guaranteed US and Israeli failure, b) guaranteed Palestinian and Jihadi success. Once committed to the paradigm and its expectations, the US was incapable of realizing they were being played.
The Israelis wanted to appease the Americans, and I suspect most of the actual negotiators (Herzog/Livni) agree with the American position that a) peace is urgently needed, and b) believe peace is within their grasp, like in 20o0… “so close.” (Certainly Herzog shows no awareness of what’s available at PalWatch or MEMRI on Palestinian attitudes off the negotiating record.) Because they do want a deal soon for fear of the demographic timebomb, the Israelis are ready to make many of concessions, both short-term (slowdown of settlement activity, release of prisoners) and long-term (division of Jerusalem).
But at the same time they know that they have limits to their concessions, not only on some key issues like refugee return and how Jerusalem is divide (already a pocketed concession), but also the damage to their position from making unreciprocated concessions, increasing the odds that this “peace deal” too will blow up in the face of the conceding side. Thus the Israelis fight over every detail to protect themselves from likely attacks from an eventual Palestinian state, while still making concessions to move the process along, to get, as even Indyk admitted they had, into the zone of possible agreement. Herzog expresses his confidence in the Palestinian’s commitment to finding a solution, despite all the counter-evidence, with a credulous humanitarian credo:
But whoever knows the issues in-depth realizes how crucial they are to both sides’ future. And those of us who have spent years at the negotiating table know how arduous and excruciating a journey is required of both sides if they are to find a sustainable balance encompassing all core issues (italics mine).
That “whoever” who “knows” does not include the current crop of Palestinian “leaders” and their negotiators. On the contrary they’re not at all interested in finding a sustainable balance. No arduous journeys for them.
- Take it seriously.
- Fight every detail to get the best acceptable deal,
- Show good faith, accede wherever possible to American demands
- Ask for reciprocity.
- Put really good people to work on it, and follow the details closely.
- Hope that, if/when things fail, they won’t get blamed.
The Palestinians are nowhere near the American’s “zone of possibility.” As long as they can pretend to the cognitive egocentrics on the other side that they are near, ready, desirous of a deal, however, negotiators will play along pretending to accept the notion of a positive-sum, give and take, deal. Indeed they will indignantly rebuke any challenge to their sincerity.
Erekat argued that this was natural given in his view Abbas’ moderate positions: “He doesn’t need to convince Abbas. Abbas accepts the two-state solution [sic!], recognizes Israel [sic!!] and does not build settlements [alas! He should be building settlements for Palestinian Refugees stuck in camps].”
But they know that their job is to make the process as difficult as possible, to give the impression they’ll make concessions without making any real concessions (eg their phony recognition of Israel). They want above all not to reach an agreement, without being blamed for the failure of negotiations. If, in the process, they can use the Americans to get unreciprocated concessions, great. The US wants them so badly to participate that the Palestinians can make just “sitting down to negotiate” a major concession on their part to match say, Israelis releasing prisoners. If they get blamed, go nuts:
The thing that really drove [Abbas] nuts,” Ashrawi relates, “is that they blamed him for the talks’ collapse. In his view, it’s all the Israelis’ — and the Americans’ — fault.”
The Palestinians are in no hurry because the suffering of their people, as long as Israel can be blamed, is a bargaining chip. They feel no need to make any actual concessions to Israel (that they wouldn’t carry through on anyway) because they feel time is on their side and they can wait. They know that Israel won’t kick the Palestinians out and can’t digest them; that the situation is a timebomb of ethnic warfare which will destroy everyone. (That’s why some Palestinians call for nuking the whole area.) And, anyway, the negotiator’s job is not to create a Palestinian state (pace “international opinion”), but to destroy an Israeli state. If the deviate from that task, if they make a deal with the Israelis, they’d lose face and Jihadis would kill them like they killed Sadat.
So they’re willing to “play along” with negotiations as long as the US pressures Israel. Abbas can claim his side had “already exhausted its ability to be flexible in past years and therefore that the main onus was not on him.” If the US can force deeply wounding concessions (Green Line including East Jerusalem) on Israel, then maybe they can appease the Jihadis by assuring them this is a major step in the “Two Phase Plan” for the destruction of Israel. If they can’t, they can’t risk the humiliation of agreeing to accept a state of free infidels in Dar al Islam, so they’ll walk away from the table and brag about how they said “No,” to the mighty Americans.
- insist on settlements as main problem and let Western cognitive egocentrists think you mean the Green Line not the shore line;
- avoid being involved in negotiations as long as possible;
- refuse any deal, avoid even responding to any deal;
- prepare ways to scuttle the talks (agreement with Hamas)
- prepare to take their case to the international community;
- blame Israeli settlements for the failure and get indignant when criticized.
It’s understandable that both Herzog and Kerry, who apparently put enormous effort into the Sisyphean task, might not want to recognize the fact that it was fruitless from the start; but independent analysts shouldn’t miss the obvious: there never was the remotest chance that the negotiations would succeed; on the contrary, the negotiators were being systematically (ab)used by Abbas and his team, and Kerry was their perfect patsy. It was another replay of 1993-2000, except this time it was Abbas who played the West for fools; Bibi who was not as foolish as Barak; and Kerry who was infinitely nastier in failure than Clinton.
Herzog occasionally allows us to see the reality he does not want to admit: speaking of one more excuse from Erekat, he notes:
Oh dear. Not a clue? How about, the Americans were desperately trying to appease the Palestinians, and in order to get them to continue the charade, they had to make dramatic claims about how much they were getting from the Israelis. So even as they promised much to the Palestinians, they asked nothing from them. The talks fell apart because “both sides” couldn’t even agree on how to extend them, the Israelis no longer willing to make concessions, the Palestinians adding further conditions.
Herzog assesses Kerry generously:
On the U.S. side, which played a dominant role in all aspects of the process, Kerry should be lauded for his commitment, determination, and intelligence, and for his indispensable role in propelling the process, even though it never stood a chance and he wasted everyone’s time to give a victory to those who stood by and let him and the Israelis spin. He definitely does not deserve the slander directed at him by some Israelis. His self-impose mission was unenviable in that he was struggling to negotiate simultaneously with Israelis, Palestinians, and the White House. Still, he did not fully grasp (have a clue to) the psychology of the parties or the not-so delicate nuances of their relations.
On the contrary, Kerry behaved like a possessed (messianic) fool from start to finish: he learned nothing, and so he nursed his grudges against Israel whom he blamed, while letting the Palestinians off scot free. But his truly odious behavior — what earned him the “slander directed at him by some Israelis” came when he then proceeded to make things infinitely worse, first with Samantha Power at the UN (Resolution 2334), and then with his deplorable speech, in which he blamed Israeli settlements for the failure.
Question: If a phobia is an irrational fear, what’s the term for an irrational lack of fear?
And the Oscar for Own-Goal Diplomacy and Astounding (messianically-induced) Stupidity combined with mean-spirited scapegoating goes to John Kerry, who richly deserves criticism not for killing the mannequin as some commentators on Herzog’s piece claim, but for insisting it was alive and blaming Israel for killing it.
In his conclusion, Herzog comments on Abbas’ strategy:
As far as Abbas is concerned, deep into the process he was still oscillating between three strategies at the same time: negotiating with Israel and the United States, promoting statehood through the international community, and reconciling with Hamas. In his mind, they were not mutually exclusive.
For Herzog, Abbas is torn between the three “deep in the process.” Hopefully this is more diplomatic nicety. Does it not even enter his mind that Abbas used all three strategies with deliberation from the start: he pretended to negotiate, used Hamas to doom the talks, and prepared to go to the international community with failed talks as his excuse.
Maybe it’s best not to realize you’ve been played for a fool by both your alleged negotiating partners. Who knows, you might get indignant.