Friday, April 25, 2014

A whole new ball game

A bit unexpectedly, in recent weeks the diplomatic initiative went over to the Palestinians. Every day, attention is riveted to the latest developments at the bureau of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Banner headlines in the morning tell of the newest initiative from Ramallah. Towards noon, a chorus of angry reactions is heard from Netanyahu and his ministers. In the evening, there come the rather confused reactions from Washington and Bruxelles. Quite a surprise, after a long time in which the Palestinians and their leaders were dragged into diplomatic pathways which were defined for them by others.

Last year, Abu Mazen entered with obvious reluctance negotiations with the Netanyahu Government. The Palestinians had all the reasons in the world to assume that Netanyahu himself does not want an agreement including withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. And even had Netanyahu wanted it, he could not have gotten such an agreement through his cabinet, with his extreme right coalition partners and his no less extreme fellow members of the Likud Party. Knowing that Netanyahu wants nothing but a show of talks and a 'peace process' leading nowhere, Abu Mazen was pressured to enter negotiations under the threat that otherwise the Palestinians would  be denounced worldwide as rejectionists.

Abu Mazen was required to oblige himself not to go to the United Nations and not to take any unilateral steps on the international arena, while Netanyahu was given the freedom to continue unilateral settlement acts on the ground. Housing Minister Uri Ariel, an incomparable expert in settlement construction, made the maximum use of this opportunity.

The only sweetener given for the Palestinians' bitter pill was the release of 104 prisoners - 104 out of some 5000 in Israeli prisons, 104 held even before the Oslo Agreements, twenty or even thirty years behind bars. This prisoner release was divided by Netanyahu into four batches, each one accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign in the Israeli media on "The release of Murderers" and a demonstrative settlement building surge for "counter-balance".

For a few months, one could cherish some hope that this process might nevertheless bear fruit. Not by an agreement and understanding between Netanyahu's negotiators and those of Abu Mazen - there never was the slightest chance of that. If there was any chance, it would have been by forceful American mediation - putting a frame agreement on the table, which the parties could not afford to refuse; directly confronting Netanyahu, with the Europeans acting as the "bad cop", making a credible threat of steps which might hurt the Israeli economy.

It is very possible that these were always false hopes and illusions. That Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama never seriously intended a head-on confrontation with Netanyahu and his supporters in the American political system. Also that Catherine Ashton and Merkel and Hollande and Cameron never seriously intended to play the role which we attributed to them - of stern friends. Lacking that, there was left to the "persistent" John Kerry only what seemed the path of least resistance - to cut a deal with Netanyahu and bring it as "take it or leave it" to the Palestinians.

According to leaks in the Israeli media, the deal was supposed to be palatable to Netanyahu on quite a few key points: clear-cut formulations about long-term Israeli presence in the strategic Jordan Valley, and the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as "a Jewish State", and conversely deliberately vague formulations about the 1967 borders and the Palestinian capital in East-Jerusalem. This was probably the dish which Kerry presented to Abu Mazen at their stormy meeting in Paris - and the Palestinian President rejected it out of hand, and rejected it again when it was warmed up again by President Obama in the White House.

Then, there was left the Americans only the choice between declaring failure - and in that way handing Netanyahu on a silver platter the victory in the "blame game" - or trying at any price to buy more time and extend the negotiations beyond the defined deadline of April 29.

Perhaps it would have succeeded. Perhaps Abu Mazen would have agreed to extend the talks until the end of the year, as Kerry asked - though in the Palestinian society there were increasing calls for ending the farce. But Netanyahu's right-wing partners have cut the Gordian knot when they intensively pressured the Prime Minister - forcing him to cancel the fourth batch of prisoner release, scheduled for March 29. This was a blatant violation of an explicit Israeli commitment, which eliminated the only sweetener offered to the Palestinian bitter pill - and which released the Palestinians from the suffocating siege of negotiations leading nowhere, providing them a sudden gust of fresh air, the freedom to take their own initiatives.

First came the public and demonstrative signature of the request for Palestinian adherence to fifteen international organizations and treaties. Then the proposal to extend negotiations beyond April 29 -  but provided that they be purposeful talks, aimed at determining the borders of Palestine-to-be, and that settlement construction be completely frozen during talks. Then, the threat to dissolve the PA and "hand over the keys" to Israel. And finally - the agreement on reconciliation and ending the deep division among Palestinians, separating Fatah from Hamas and the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. The Prime Minister’s office in West Jerusalem and the State Department in Washington were confused and disconcerted at the abundance of Palestinian initiatives landing on their desks, and accused the intelligence people who had also been totally surprised by the Palestinians moves.

“Do the Palestinians themselves know what they want? Let them decide if they want to dismantle the PA or to unite with Hamas" mocked Netanyahu. In fact, however, all these rapidly interchanging initiatives carried a single message – to the Israelis, the Americans, the Europeans, and the entire world. Over is the old game in which the Palestinians were required to play a secondary role dictated to them, in the Procrustean bed of ongoing occupation. From now on, the Palestinians are taking their fate into their own hands and introduce initiatives to which others will have to react. To his own  Palestinian people, the message of the initiatives emanating from Abbas' office is no less important : it is possible to take the initiative and advance Palestinian interests - without resorting to violence, such as deteriorated into a bloodbath following the failure of Camp David fourteen years ago .

Can it succeed? What other surprises have the Palestinian in store for Netanyahu and Kerry and Obama and the other actors in this drama? One can think of at least one more step which might materialize soon: a candidacy for the Palestinian presidency presented by Marwan Barghouti - the most famous Palestinian prisoner, and the leader considered as the having the greatest chance to succeed Abbas. He may well be elected President in his prison cell - and on the day after, the Palestinian security personnel would notify their Israeli counterparts: "For security coordination between us, you have to apply to our President who is in your jail."