A spy cannot save the Israeli-Palestinian talks
While Kerry might still prove all the skeptics wrong, major changes have to undergo his approach and game plan
Surprise, surprise, the three-decade old peace process between Israelis and the Palestinians has hit another deadlock. The indirect talks are in such a bad place that even floating a desperate proposal by the tireless U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to possibly release Israel’s spy serving a life sentence in North Carolina, Jonathan Pollard, could not keep them going.
Sure enough, following Kerry cutting his visit short after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied for membership at 15 U.N. organizations. The blame game has started. Some point fingers to Abbas for his “unilateral” move. Others blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not agreeing to a prisoner release package. Some fault Kerry for getting blindsided by both leaders.
Truth is, this round of talks had no legs begin with, and other than Secretary Kerry himself, very few believed it could culminate in a comprehensive agreement. While Kerry might still prove all the skeptics wrong, major changes have to undergo his approach and game plan.
Keep Pollard out of it
The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein is right, releasing Pollard at this stage of the talks is “a bad idea.” The ranking Democrat told the Daily Beast, that what Pollard has done “was a major betrayal and I’ve followed it over the years. It’s one thing if there’s an agreement. It’s another thing totally if there isn’t.”
The idea of releasing a spy who has notoriously sold a foreign entity, albeit an ally, a large amount of classified documents in return for confidence building measures in a faltering process, is ludicrous. It is a slap in the face to the intelligence community, to the judiciary system, and sends the wrong message to all the parties involved.Joyce Karam
The leaders have not even held direct talks yet, let alone the time to agree on something. Even a framework for an agreement is being delayed, and the best case scenario would be extending the faltering indirect talks for another eight months.
Releasing Pollard, as proposed, would be a bargaining chip to get Israel to release 400 more Palestinian prisoners, and show “restraint” in settlement expansion in the West Bank, not even a complete freeze. The deal would also not include Jerusalem.
The idea of releasing a spy who has notoriously sold a foreign entity, albeit an ally, a large amount of classified documents in return for confidence building measures in a faltering process, is ludicrous. It is a slap in the face to the intelligence community, to the judiciary system, and sends the wrong message to all the parties involved.
It is no wonder that former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did not execute such a plan when they had the chance to and when they were closer to an agreement. It is also one thing for Pollard to be released on humanitarian grounds, or through parole, and it is another for him to be used as bait in political gesturing between Israelis and the Palestinians.
Soft approach collapsing
So far, Kerry’s plan of engaging, offering political incentives to Netanyahu and economic incentives to Abbas, has fallen short in driving them to the same table. Washington does not look good when Abbas ignores U.S. pleas and goes ahead with the U.N. applications and when Netanyahu goes to bake Matzah hours after Kerry’s visit collapses.
The soft approach has not made either leader agree to U.S. demands and has put Washington in a precarious position. Abbas for his part probably likes and appreciates Kerry’s efforts but for his own domestic reasons, cannot just sit and wait for a settlement freeze or a two state agreement.
The U.N. track is the most effect leverage that the Palestinians have right now and if unilateral international recognition will not change Israel’s calculus, it is hard to imagine what will.
Netanyahu has shown over time that he mostly responds to pressure. Such pressure is unlikely to come now, however. The Obama administration has its hands tied domestically and has more urgent priorities regionally.
With Iran’s negotiations on-going and an opportunity for a deal in July, the administration might want to use any leverage it has with Congress and its regional allies to support this track. Also, as congressional midterm elections approach in November, and with no agreement in sight on the peace process, it will be even harder to pursue if the Democrats lose the majority in the Senate.
All of the above dim the prospect of a negotiated peace deal in the near future, and could force a new dynamic in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, one that is defined by a battle at U.N. agencies and less latitude for the United States as it tries to juggle its support for Israel with its deep conviction for achieving a two state solution as a key priority for the Obama presidency.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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