The Middle East Channel

Kerry can restart negotiations, but can he finish them?

Kerry can restart negotiations, but can he finish them?

After six trips to the Middle East in four months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s intensive shuttle diplomacy has finally borne fruit. In a major announcement last Friday, the secretary declared that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had "reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations," which have been stalled since September 2010. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could meet in Washington as early as this week.

The fact that bringing the parties back to where they were three years ago is considered a breakthrough is a sign of just how low the bar has dropped. Moreover, while Kerry may have succeeded in getting the parties into negotiations it is far less clear that he can keep them there, much less get them out with an agreement. 

Although details have not yet been made public, the deal reportedly includes a U.S. commitment that negotiations would be based on the 1967 lines and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, but would not require either party to accept any particular provision. In addition to negotiations, Kerry has put together an impressive package of economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other confidence building measures, including a major prisoner release.

Notwithstanding Kerry’s deep personal commitment to a resolution and intimate knowledge of the issues, the current approach does not fundamentally deviate from those of his predecessors. Since the parties are free to accept or reject the "agreed" bases for negotiations, getting back to the negotiating table is still in many ways viewed as an end unto itself. In addition, major structural obstacles remain that could easily derail or at least paralyze the current process.

The two biggest "elephants" in the room relate to the nature of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships themselves. On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over what may be the most pro-settlement government in Israel’s history, several of whose members openly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

While Obama administration officials may believe they are doing much to restrain Israeli settlement construction, the settlement project today is in fact thriving. Since the start of the year, the Israeli government has approved or otherwise advanced plans for a staggering 15,800 new housing units in settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, part of what Israeli settlement expert Danny Seidemann has called "a settlement surge unprecedented in scope and intensity since 1967." So triumphant has the settlement project become that each of Kerry’s most recent visits to the region were met with announcements for new settlement expansion plans (here and here).

Meanwhile, nothing does more to undermine Palestinian confidence in the "peace process" than ongoing Israeli settlement expansion. And nothing does more to undermine the Palestinian leadership’s domestic credibility than continuing to engage in a negotiation process while Israel persists in colonizing Palestinian land — which brings us to Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Far from the "state in waiting" many Palestinians had once hoped it would be, today’s PA is financially bankrupt, has no functioning parliament, and continues to suffer from a debilitating split between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The notion that such a divided and dysfunctional leadership, which lacks either electoral or consensual legitimacy, would have a mandate to negotiate the sort of wide-ranging compromises that a peace deal with Israel would require is fanciful at best.

Any negotiation process that ignores these two corrosive issues is virtually assured of failure. And failure always comes with a cost. On that score, the playing field is anything but equal. Whereas U.S. and Israeli leaders would likely live to fight another day, the same cannot be said of the current Palestinian leadership. While expectations on all sides remain palpably low, the Palestinians by and large have come to see the peace process as little more than a fig leaf for Israeli settlement expansion and other forms of unilateralism.

Not surprisingly, Palestinian leaders have been reluctant to openly embrace the announcement of imminent negotiations. The prospect of Abbas returning to the negotiations in the face of continued settlement expansion and at a time of unprecedented national disunity is likely to further erode his credibility in the eyes of Palestinians while handing his Hamas opponents some easy ammunition to use against him.

If there is one lesson to be gleaned from the past two decades of failed negotiations it is that trying and failing can do more damage than not trying at all. Whereas the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000 led directly to several years of violence during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, another failed peace process could spell the end of the current Palestinian leadership as well as the prospect of a two state solution. This does not mean negotiations should be put off indefinitely, as many hardliners now seek, only that they be conducted under conditions that are more conducive to success.

If new negotiations are to have any chance of success, the United States must break with the failed policies of the past, including the continued neglect of Israel’s ever-expanding settlement enterprise and the ongoing Palestinian division. Short of this, Kerry can only look forward to the same outcome as his predecessors. 

Khaled Elgindy is a Fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He previously served with the Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership on permanent status negotiations with Israel (2004 -2009) and was a key participant in the Annapolis negotiations launched in November 2007.