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July 21, 2014 1:10 AM The Failure of the Middle East Peace Process

By Martin Longman

I’ve grown so frustrated with the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine question in particular that I’ve had to fight the urge to just tune it all out. But I sucked it up and read Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s mega-opus on the failure of Secretary Kerry’s push for peace. As you might expect, the article mixes a healthy amount of praise for Kerry’s efforts along with a smattering of criticism for missteps and misunderstandings. Overall, the players involved in the negotiations came away feeling that Kerry was correct to try and not really to blame for failing. I’m surprised that Kerry was able to convince President Obama to risk the wrath of the intelligence community be agreeing to set Jonathan Pollard free three years early.

I’m not too comfortable with how the end game is described in the article. It makes it seem like things might still have worked out if the Palestinians hadn’t lost patience and announced a unity deal with Hamas. In fact, it’s surprising that the subject of Hamas hardly even comes up in the article. All these negotiations were strictly between Israel and Fatah, and Fatah did not control the Gaza Strip. So, even if Israel could get to a level of comfort negotiating with Abu Mazen, Saeb Erekat, Majid Faraj, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, those men couldn’t make promises that would be binding on Hamas. How could Israel make a deal with just Fatah?

But it seems that no one in the region has any use for Hamas these days. The Sunni/Shi’a divide cost them their support from Syria and Iran, and the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt cost them the support of the Muslim Brotherhood there. The fact that they were willing to join a unity government with Fatah shows how weak they had become even before Israel decided to attack them.

There is truly great reporting in the piece but I’m left with a lot of questions. How did the parties ever expect to hash out a deal without Hamas being involved? Was decimating Hamas always kind of a prerequisite to anything actually happening? Did Fatah think that Israel would sit back and allow them to have a unity government with Hamas? Was there really any prospect that Israel would agree to release the fourth tranche of prisoners if given more time by Abbas?

[Tzipi] Livni was pressing Netanyahu for an immediate vote on the deal. “Everything is ready,” she said, “just get the ministers here.” Netanyahu, however, was working with Kerry on an exchange of letters that would make everything official. Kerry, meanwhile, was waiting on White House approval of a single paragraph—the Pollard paragraph. But [Susan] Rice’s staff was still engaged in frantic negotiations with Israeli officials over the particulars: when Pollard would go free, where he could travel, what he could say. Though Netanyahu had promised Kerry the night before that he would hold the vote today, he had told Kerry and [Martin] Indyk earlier that morning that he wanted to wait one more to prepare Israeli public opinion. Indyk was incredulous. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he said, “you are playing with fire.”

The Israeli right was also in rebellion mode, with Likud officials vowing to resign and [Naftali] Bennett again threatening to leave the government if the fourth tranche was released. As Netanyahu pressed the merits of the extension deal to [Uri] Ariel and his hard-right allies during one of their shifts, one of his aides entered the room: “Mr. Prime Minister, Abu Mazen has just signed fifteen U.N. conventions.” Netanyahu froze.

The way this reporting is constructed, it makes it look like there is all this flurry of activity on the American and Israeli sides which is just cut off at the knees by an impatient Abbas. I don’t doubt the basic reporting here, but I think it doesn’t take into enough account the degree to which Netanyahu was either delaying with a purpose or simply incapable of delivering. Do the reporters actually believe that Netanyahu was on the verge of rounding up the votes he needed to release the fourth tranche of prisoners? If they do believe this, they didn’t bother to say that they believed it. Yet, the way they reported it implies that they actually believe it.

It appears that Livni and the Americans thought it was possible. So, maybe it was. A successful vote wouldn’t have been any magic elixir anyway, but it would have kept the process alive. And that would have been a much better place to be than where we are now, wouldn’t it?

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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