(March 6, 2017 / JNS) The most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations failed because the Palestinian Authority (PA) responded to each Israeli concession with new demands and the Obama administration kept taking the Palestinians’ side, according to a veteran Israeli negotiator.
Brigadier-General (ret.) Michael Herzog, a member of Israel’s negotiating teams since 1993, disclosed previously unknown details about the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian talks that took place in 2013-2014, in an essay for The American Interest Feb. 27.
Herzog disputed claims by former State Department envoy Martin Indyk that Israeli housing construction was the main reason the talks failed. “I doubt that even a full settlement freeze would have salvaged these talks,” Herzog wrote. “More compelling causes determined their outcome.”
The major cause for failure, he argued, was that each time Israel offered concessions, Palestinian leaders would respond by demanding more and by taking an extreme step. For example, in hopes of keeping the PA at the negotiating table, Israel at one point offered to give the Palestinians partial control over some sections of Area C, the portion of Judea and Samaria that is under Israeli control. The very next morning, the PA signed a unity pact with the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza.
On another occasion, Secretary of State John Kerry hoped to convince the PA to extend the negotiations by pressing Israel to release an additional 400 imprisoned terrorists. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to convince his reluctant cabinet to agree to the demand. Before the cabinet meeting had even concluded, the PA announced it was asking 15 international agencies for recognition as the “state of Palestine”—violating the conditions Kerry set for the talks.
These Palestinian actions “shattered our nascent hopes” for a peace agreement, Herzog wrote. They confirmed “the Palestinian mindset I have witnessed for years. It is as if negotiations are simply about exacting what Palestinians perceive to be their rights, rather than engaging in a two-way give-and-take.”
The situation was further complicated by the fact that Kerry sometimes presented the PA with concessions by Israel that were more extensive than what the Israelis were actually offering. “Our jaws dropped” when they learned what Kerry had been offering the Palestinians, Herzog wrote.
In one instance, PA President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Israeli Arabs be included among the terrorists who were going to be released. “The Israelis were unwilling to bargain over its own citizens convicted under its own laws, and conveyed this position to the U.S. side early on,” Herzog reported. “They were soon surprised to find out that Kerry had nonetheless promised this to Abbas, later claiming a misunderstanding with Israel.”
There was a similar “misunderstanding” when Abbas demanded the terrorists be permitted to return to the territories. “The head of Israel’s General Security Services, Yoram Cohen, warned all along that some of these prisoners were still dangerous and would likely go back to murdering Israelis if released to their homes in the West Bank,” and this was “conveyed to the U.S. side early on,” according to Herzog. Kerry nevertheless assured Abbas “that all prisoners would be released ‘to their homes,’” and when the Israelis protested, Kerry’s aides said the diplomat “was not aware of this nuance,” he wrote.
“U.S. negotiators put great pressure on the Israeli side to feed the extension of negotiations with gestures,” Herzog recalled. “It soon felt like a bazaar, with the Palestinians adding more and more to their cart of insatiable demands.” Even after Kerry agreed to Israeli construction inside existing Jewish communities that were within the major settlement blocs, he wrote, “the U.S. side complained” about the construction and “Kerry began to press for significant restraint in the future.”
For Alan Baker, a former Israeli diplomat who directs the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the Herzog revelations illustrate Kerry’s bias against Israel. Baker, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Canada, told JNS.org he is “not at all” surprised to learn that Kerry misled the Israeli negotiators, because “Kerry, despite his false claims of friendship and sympathy [toward Israel], consistently displayed ignorance, utter naiveté, and even hostility.”
President Barack Obama made one last attempt to convince the PA to continue negotiating. At a White House meeting March 17, 2014, Herzog wrote that Abbas “was presented with new ideas and formulations that departed from traditional official U.S. positions and tilted toward his positions and that were never shared with Israel.” One of the ideas involved turning the Old City of Jerusalem and adjoining neighborhoods into the capital of “Palestine.” Abbas never responded, and “to this day, he has not provided a response,” Herzog concluded.
David Bukay, a professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Haifa, told JNS.org that Herzog’s account demonstrates how the fundamental problem in the negotiations was the Obama administration’s failure to understand that the PA’s goal is ultimately to conquer Israel “in its entirety.” That, he said, “is why all the mediators and schemes have failed in finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and why we are still at square one.”
Raphael Israeli, an emeritus professor of Middle Eastern history at Hebrew University, said the tactics used by the PA in the 2013-2014 negotiations show that the Palestinian leadership will accept only “peace on their terms,” which ultimately can involve only “a de-Zionized, de-Judaized Israel, never a Jewish state.”