The peace process: from brinkmanship to desperation

No one promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that it would be easy to bring peace in the Mideast region

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

No one promised U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that it would be easy to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, after more than a year of countless trips and endless meetings with both leaderships, even he, the eternal optimist, called for a “reality check” by all those involved in the latest round of failed negotiations for peace. The reflection he suggested contained a veiled threat that the U.S. administration would reassess its participation in the peace process all together. Part of this reassessment should evaluate if the sides are invested enough in a meaningful peace process. It seems that they pretend to negotiate, especially the Israeli government, for the benefit of the international community because it is demanding it of them. In reality they are unwilling, even scared, of the compromises needed, more than of the unknown consequences of not reaching an agreement.

Secretary Kerry began his reflection period yesterday in a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and accused Israel of derailing the peace process by her provocative actions and not adhering to agreements.

This past week was another example of bad-tempered unilateral actions which could only lead to a complete breakdown in negotiations. It might be the case that in the remaining days leading to the peace agreement deadline, at least one of the sides, if not both, are engaged in brinkmanship, expecting the other side to blink. They might even up the ante in hopes that if pushed to the brink, the U.S. would prevent a complete collapse of the talks in a manner which will favor their interests. What does not seem to resonate with either of the sides, is that beyond the brink there is a very dangerous abyss of potential bloodshed, destruction or even a march towards historical oblivion.

Israel’s U-turn

Israel’s U-turn on releasing 104 prisoners was an unnecessary provocation, as they are aware what a sensitive issue this is for the Palestinians, and thus the impact it has on the Palestinian leadership at such a delicate moment in the peace negotiations. President Abbas and his chief negotiator Saeb Erekat are in a desperate need to present their constituency with some good news. This is of key importance, if they want to stand any chance of garnering the necessary support for the painful compromises they are required to make in any future peace deal.

A very despondent John Kerry cancelled his visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem in a move which could be interpreted as either brinkmanship or despair

Yossi Mekelberg

Releasing Palestinian prisoners, as tough as it might be for the Israelis, is an important gesture of good will and a tangible benefit of the peace process. Announcing a tender to build 700 more homes in East Jerusalem last week by the Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel, can only be seen as a further deliberate act of sabotage by an Israeli government which has no interest in reaching a peace agreement.

Palestinian provocation

To be sure, the Palestinian response of applying for admittance to 15 UN agencies and conventions contravened a promise by their leadership not do so until the conclusion of negotiations. Showing restraint on this front at least until the deadline expired at the end of the month could have prevented further escalation. Israel’s almost predictable response of threatening the Palestinians with the infliction of more misery, if implemented, can only result in a complete breakdown in the negotiations. The refusal of the Israeli government to transfer taxes to the PA owed to the Palestinians, the collecting of hundreds of millions of shekels the PA owed the Israel Electric Corporation, and restricting Palestinian activities in Area C of the occupied West Bank, which was put under Israeli control in the Oslo Accords, can only lead to more despair and radicalization.

A very despondent John Kerry cancelled his visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem in a move which could be interpreted as either brinkmanship or despair (or may be both). He rightly asserted in a press conference last week that “it is regrettable that…both sides have taken steps that are not helpful and that’s evident to everybody.” He went as close as admitting defeat in the face of leadership which refused to lead from the front. Nevertheless, his assertion about the role of the mediator, namely the U.S. is revealing: “You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises… The leaders have to lead and they have to be able to see a moment when it’s there.” In other words the interlocutors should be invested in the peace, at least as much as the mediator, and it is not up to the U.S. to impose a solution on them. One of course agrees with the principle that the onus of reaching an agreement is on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. Yet, the onus on the international community, led by the U.S., is to ensure that both sides understand the price of not doing so.

If left to their own devices, both Israelis and Palestinians will most likely resort to unilateralism. The Palestinian leadership will search for wider international recognition in as many institutions as possible, and effectively use the threat of bringing Israeli politicians and members of the security forces in front of the ICC. Israel will continue to ignore the rest of the world, and will keep expanding settlements and maintain her oppressive occupation. Despite the rhetoric and the threats against the Palestinian Authority, Israel has no alternative to it. One of the PA’s strongest cards is that Israel has an interest in keeping it in power. If it folds, Israel is either handed back the full responsibility for the daily running of the Palestinian occupied territories, as it is obliged to do so by international law, or it might end up facing another Palestinian leadership which no doubt will take a much harder line towards Israel. Additionally, the PA depends on the good will of the Israeli government for its survival and therefore would like to avoid total confrontation which might lead to its collapse.

Martin Luther King remarked that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This irreplaceable ingredient is evidently missing from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Hence both sides, in tacit agreement with the U.S., might prefer to maintain some semblance of a peace process in order to prevent another violent explosion - even a Third Intifada. If the peace process is pronounced dead, it might spell the end of the two state solution as a viable option. This will pave the way either for a prolonged conflict, hijacked by extremists from both sides, and also the abandoning of the two state solution in favor of a one state solution discourse. These are the likely unintended consequences of a failed peace process, which will reverberate within the Palestinian and Israeli societies for many years to come.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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