Poof! Israelis and Palestinians Head for the Brink

On the El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wandered into the economy section looking for an aide, or perhaps just too tense after a long week in America to sit still. Lieberman wore the uncertain smile of a man in strange territory who doesn't know where he's going. The young muscular guy sitting next to me, wearing a dark jacket and a shirt open at the collar, the uniform of muscular men who accompany Israeli ministers, constituted an immediate warning against buttonholing his boss. He did mention, however, that no one in the foreign minister's party had slept in the past week.

In a much more basic way, Lieberman really doesn't know where he's going, nor does Secretary of State John Kerry, with whom Lieberman met in Washington, nor Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and sleepless anxiety is the proper state of mind for anyone involved in the triangular Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. non-negotiations. Abbas's logical, desperate dissatisfaction with a "process" proceeding nowhere has led him to try brinkmanship, a gambit that can either force an agreement—or lead over the brink into an abyss.

A day before meeting Lieberman, Kerry had committed honesty before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Describing how his effort to negotiate an extension of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke down, Kerry described Israel's delay in carrying out an agreed release of Palestinian prisoners and then its announcement of plans to build over 700 new apartments in East Jerusalem. "Poof!" he said, raising both hands, "So we find ourselves where we are. " Israel's actions, in other words, were what pushed Abbas to return to the international arena, asking to sign 15 international treaties in the name of the State of Palestine. Meeting Lieberman, Kerry reportedly walked that remark back a very small amount: He wasn't blaming Israel, he said; he was just describing what happened. (As in: "I didn't accuse you of robbery. I just said you walked in with a gun and walked out with a bag of money.")

To be clear: Though Kerry's reference to settlement building got heavy media play, it wasn't the whole story. As an anonymous official from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office told The New York Times, the original agreement to begin talks last summer did not include a settlement freeze, so Israel hadn't broken a promise on that. That's true. (Let us leave aside the willingness of news organizations to let an official remain anonymous "because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly" when it's obvious that he was assigned to be the prime minister's mouthpiece.) One of the original flaws of the negotiations is that they began without a settlement freeze, allowing Netanyahu's government to continue unilateral action to prevent a two-state agreement. In place of a freeze, Abbas settled for the Israeli gesture of freeing 104 Palestinians serving time in Israeli jails for terror attacks. Netanyahu's delay—under pressure from rightists in his government—in releasing the last batch of prisoners  already made Abbas look like a fool before his own public. The settlement announcement just drove home the message.

Netanyahu filled in more of the story in a cabinet communiqué: The talks had been going nowhere; the Palestinians had refused to even discuss his demand to recognize Israel "as a Jewish state." Let's translate: Netanyahu's precondition succeeded in preventing progress, and he wanted the U.S. administration to follow his script and blame the Palestinians. Netanyahu was outraged that Kerry refused to recite his assigned lines.

From Abbas's perspective, Israel wanted only to negotiate about more talks, which would lead to talks, which would fill time. Abbas is out of time. He's 79. He has been president of the Palestinian Authority for years longer than his elected term. He has become the strongman of a non-existent state. In some ways, a strongman is even more dependent on public opinion than a politician facing elections is: If the regime totally runs out of legitimacy, it can collapse.

It's true that signing 15 international treaties will not transform Palestine into an actual independent state, one that has, to quote Max Weber, "the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." The name "Palestine" in the list of signatories won't make Israeli troops or construction crews vanish from the West Bank. But the implied threat is that Abbas's next move is joining the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Article 8 of the statue states it is a war crime for an occupying power "to transfer, directly or indirectly… parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Prima facie, the court could seek to prosecute Israeli officials, including incumbents, for their role in any new settlement activity. In terms of international pressure, the European Union's sanctions against settlements would seem like a pleasant memory in comparison.  

Israel is already signaling that it also knows how to play brinkmanship. The government has stopped ministerial-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and announced it will stop transferring the tax revenues it collects for the PA. The U.S. Congress, some of whose members treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if they represented the parties of Israel's hard right, could freeze the American aid that also helps hold up the PA.

If the money stops flowing, the result could exceed what either Abbas or Netanyahu wants. The real Palestinian Authority, not the virtual State of Palestine, provides civil government in Palestinian cities and towns. It runs the schools and clinics (the PA, as part of the civilized world, has national health care). It has police and security services that cooperate with Israel in preventing terror, a reflection of the Abbas regime's commitment to reach independence by diplomacy rather than violence.

A sharp drop in funding could lead to the collapse of the PA. In February, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a Ramallah think-tank headed by prominent political scientist Khalil Shikaki, published a "Day After" report by 30 experts on what could happen if the PA shuts down. "Armed militias are likely to take the law into their own hand the report warns. Israel might be forced to resume direct rule over the Palestinian population, which would likely respond with a "mixture of civil disobedience and large-scale violence." In place of today's Palestinian majority for a two-state outcome,  "support for… the one-state solution… will gain momentum among Palestinians."

This isn't Abbas's goal. Palestine asked for and gained observer-state status in the United Nations as a state existing side by side with Israel. A single state isn't a solution; it's a plan for two national communities to keep fighting. If the Palestinian political balance—and the international consensus—shifts toward the one-state illusion, Israel and the Palestinians will together pay the price of brinkmanship.

Ah well, says conventional wisdom, the United States can't want an agreement more than the Israelis and Palestinians, so it's time for Kerry to quit. This is nonsense. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns violent again, Washington will face one more Middle East crisis for which it has no answer. A new round of Arab-Israeli fighting will weaken the American position in the entire region.

Realpolitik, not altruism, dictates that the administration push harder rather than walking away. Kerry's "poof" comment may be part of the push, a warning to Netanyahu that Israel won't be able to explain the collapse of talks as Palestinian intransigence and escape the consequences. Will it work? Who knows. Right now everyone involved is nervously flying into the unknown.  

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