Spies, Swaps, and Sins of Omission

Spies, Swaps, and Sins of Omission

I am still betting that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to come up with some fix that will get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the April 29 deadline for a framework accord and into the great beyond of yet more negotiations. But I must say, the signs don’t look good for meaningful progress, let alone breakthroughs.

Having been around the block on this issue more than a few times, I detect an all-too-familiar whiff of desperation in the air. And the signs of distress seem to abound, particularly as Kerry unexpectedly flew off to see Abbas in Amman, Jordan, on March 26, after having just seen him in Washington last week. Here are the top five reasons you know the peace process is in trouble:

1. Jonathan Pollard’s name comes up.

This is a peace process perennial. And when it sprouts up, look out. In 1998, in an effort to reach an interim agreement between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister pushed what has become a standard request since 1985 — release Jonathan Pollard. From Israel’s point of view — and as illogical and objectionable as it may sound to an American — the imprisoned spy who was convicted for spying on the United States is like a soldier left on the battlefield. Israel is obligated to get him back. The presumption is that releasing him would afford this prime minister a political coup at home and make it easier to permit him to swallow some peace-related issue. At the 1998 Wye River summit, CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign when President Bill Clinton seemed inclined to consider the request. Current CIA Director John Brennan may well have the same reaction. Nothing demonstrates how far afield we’ve come and how shaky this peace process is when you start mixing Pollard apples with peace process oranges. It’s a sure sign that the focus has shifted to the wrong set of issues driven by the wrong set of motives.

2. Releasing Palestinian prisoners becomes the key to the process.

This is another issue that has served over the years as a confidence destroyer rather than a confidence enhancer. And it demonstrates the level of mistrust and suspicion that exists between the two sides. The deal that was apparently cut nine months ago — Israel would release 104 prisoners in phases, and the Palestinians would defer their campaign to take the statehood issue to the United Nations — was always a devil’s bargain. The Palestinians believe Israel shouldn’t be imprisoning their people to begin with, while Israel believes Palestinians shouldn’t be going to the U.N. in the first place. So it’s not as if these deliverables are terribly meaningful confidence builders. Indeed, on the issue of prisoners they are guaranteed to raise tensions, not lower them. Every release — accompanied as it is by jubilation on one side, grief and anger on the other — only divides the two camps. And it places both Netanyahu and Abbas in a much tougher position. Indeed, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, made clear when he was in Washington that Palestinian credibility is now on the line. If Israel doesn’t go ahead with the release this week or next, how can Palestinians believe that the Israelis will make good on delivering any of the core issues? Meanwhile, Israelis insist that there was nothing automatic about the deal. Unless negotiations were progressing, they weren’t obligated to release prisoners. Bottom line: If this process were working the way it should, the focus wouldn’t be on prisoners or Pollard, but on the substance of a deal on borders, Jerusalem, etc.

3. Obama tells Jeffrey Goldberg what he really thinks.

The Obama-Netanyahu relationship has always been something of a soap opera. The U.S. president thinks the prime minister is a con man; the prime minister thinks the president is bloodless when it comes to really understanding Israel’s fears. In a functional peace process, Barack Obama would never feel the need — and on the eve of a meeting with his Israeli counterpart — to vent his frustrations with Israel’s policies and lay down markers of what’s likely to happen to Israel if the peace process collapses. That interview, with Bloomberg View columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, really does reflect how Obama feels on matters such as settlement activity, and it strongly suggests that, if Obama had the cojones, he’d slam dunk the Israelis. But he won’t or can’t for any number of reasons. So the next best option is to vent indirectly. Whether or not these kinds of tactics work (and most often they don’t), they reflect a serious problem in the way the president and the prime minister understand their respective needs. Indeed, the real problem isn’t just the lack of trust between Bibi and Abbas; it’s the absence of real confidence between Bibi and Obama. From Carter to Begin, Bush to Shamir — to use the word of choice these days — all had issues. But they also managed to work together and actually produce something serious.

4. Kerry’s doing too much heavy lifting.

Kerry has been relentless in his pursuit of some kind of breakthrough. Is there a doubt in anyone’s mind that, without him, there wouldn’t even be peace process vapors? But U.S. will is necessary yet not sufficient. After almost nine months, the very real question arises: Whose peace process is this? Do Abbas and Netanyahu own it? If so, are they willing to make the hard choices on the core issues without having to be scolded or chased after by a U.S. secretary of state? If the answer to this question were yes, we wouldn’t be following this particular logic chain to a potentially unhappy end. To get an agreement on Jerusalem, security, borders, refugees, and recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, you need real urgency — and that’s driven by both pain and gain. Right now there’s not enough of either.

5. The missing piece isn’t even being discussed.

There’s only one fight worth having with Israelis and Palestinians. And that’s over the terms of a final deal. Forget Pollard, prisoners, even settlements. Making that kind of effort depends on getting to a point where the gaps on the core issues are capable of being bridged or reaching the conclusion that laying out a U.S. plan on these issues would have a positive impact. Right now, neither are ready for prime time. Whether they will ever be, given the current cast of characters and their priorities — including Obama’s — is very much an open question. So in the absence of shutting down the whole effort, the administration is trying to keep it alive.

My own view is that the chances of doing that, i.e., getting past the April deadline without a major shutdown, are pretty good. Nobody wants to be fingered with the collapse of the process; nobody wants to face the consequences of being exposed to violence, boycott, or some other calamity; and nobody in Washington wants to admit that a foreign-policy initiative that the administration had made such a priority has failed. So without much direction but full of purpose and an ennobling spirit, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."