After four months of seemingly endless shuttle diplomacy, John Kerry has succeeded in getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit down and talk to each other about peace. No real plan was announced and both sides are still pretty firm on their positions, but we should get the confetti ready, because this clearly is a major step towards peace, right?
False reports last Thursday said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to peace talks based on the 1967 lines. The rumors became so widespread that Netanyahu had to release a statement denying it, as did the State Department.
The next day, Kerry announced that both sides had agreed to talks, and then he immediately flew back to the U.S. To be fair, his wife is in the hospital recovering from a stroke, but it still was a less-than-ideal way to start the process.
Kerry’s announcement came on Friday night when a significant number of Israelis were keeping the sabbath, meaning they weren’t using technology and didn’t see the news until Saturday night. The religious population is much more weary of peace talks than the secular population, so this was likely a strategy to keep public reaction under control. Again, not the greatest sign.
Then came the rhetoric. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said that a letter from Kerry promised negotiations based on the 1967 lines. Netanyahu denied that. Abbas said the letter required that both groups would do nothing that would hurt the peace talks, yet Netanyahu said that he did not agree to a settlement freeze in areas outside of the 1967 lines, historically a Palestinian pre-condition to negotiations. The Palestinian negotiatior refuses to leave for Washington until he is assured that talks will be based on the 1967 lines.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious Jewish Home party, promised to continue settlement construction during negotiations. The last time the two parties held talks in 2010, they ended abruptly after only three weeks over Israel's refusal to renew a settlement freeze. Another red flag.
Both sides agreed that Israel would release 82 Palestinian prisoners responsible for deadly terrorist attacks in Israel, which, not surprisingly, drew ire from the victims' families. Several notable Israeli politicians, including the chair of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, have publicly doubted that the talks will even begin.
Palestinians didn't show any more unity on the issue. Abbas's spokesmen said there was no plan for peace talks on Monday, days after Kerry made the announcement. Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza and the rival of Abbas's Palestinian Authority, quickly condemned the talks and fired a rocket into southern Israel. Responding with bombs doesn't really bode well for the future of these negotiations.
In a speech attended by Abbas over the weekend, a Palestinian minister compared the talks to an agreement made by the Prophet Muhammed that was made only to be broken. Netanyahu promised that any peace deal would be subject to a referendum by the Israeli people. A poll found that 55 percent of Israelis are inclined to vote for a such a deal, assuming talks lead to one – and that's a big assumption. That number is promising, but it certainly doesn't leave a large enough margin to ensure that a deal would be approved.
If there are this many complications just to get to the negotiating table, why should anyone expect that these talks will lead to peace?
A New Republic article said Kerry is the number one reason to hope for a peace deal. If that's really the case, then there can be no hope for a peace deal.
It's not that Kerry's critics don't want peace; they just don't think it's possible given the current situation. Few see a circumstance where the maximum Netanyahu is able to offer comes anywhere close to the minimum Abbas is willing to accept. Is that a good thing? No, of course not. But it is the reality, and this recent attempt at peace talks seems to be little more than a hopeless pursuit at this point.