An unexpected shift has opened the door to the first negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian in years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Saturday that he would agree to release 104 Palestinian prisoners as a condition to start peace talks. In turn, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas made another step toward sitting down at the table.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s tenacious and persistent efforts achieved this progress. The American Secretary of State traveled back and forth nonstop to pull the two parties together. However, Netanyahu’s agreement is conditional, depending on progress at the table. The prisoners will be released in four stages after the negotiations begin and in accordance with progress. If the agreement falls apart, the release ends.
Both the Palestinian and Israeli publics are strongly opposed to this proposition. During this past weekend, Abbas’s people were in the streets protesting even the start of talks. Israelis did the same. The man on the street appears to be far more aware of the practical problems that does John Kerry. No one can fault Kerry for his diligence and steadfast efforts. At the same time, he is trying to move the immoveable object with irresistible force ( all of which is a contradiction in possibilities) Kerry is desperately trying to achieve a breakthrough before the annual convening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Can Kerry pull it off? No one knows, but I remain pessimistic.
The PA is struggling with leadership problems. The last Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah lasted 18 days. Abbas is struggling to avoid a constitutionally mandated election as Hamas and Hezbullah could walk away with the results. As he lost control of the Gaza Strip, the same upheaval is possible in Ramallah. Palestinians think negotiations means they will get back Haifa, Jaffa, and Safed. Sorry. Won’t happen.
Israeli’s are no longer willing to settle for a divided Jerusalem as their eternal capital. Will they give part of it back? I cannot see that in my crystal ball. Netanyahu as already been forced to go beyond what his Likud party will allow. In order to make any progress, he may have to leave the ideology of his party behind and walk out into a political no man’s land. Can Netanyahu do so? That may end up being the jackpot question.
At this point, we don’t know what carrot and stick Kerry used to set up this breakthrough. With huge financial offerings at stage, Kerry could have considerable leverage on both sides. However, they will not be enough to bring a true breakthrough. Abbas continually faces being overthrown and if he makes the offers that lead to success, he may well fall. In the same way, Netanyahu is faced with a resolute public that is no less adamant about backing down.
What do I see? They will sit down at the table and kibitz over how to proceed for a period of time, but when the rock solid issues comes down, it will be all over. At lest, that’s the testimony of the last 20 years. Barak and Arafat launched talks, but couldn’t conclude them. Olmert and Abbas did the same. And so it goes.
Hope I’m wrong but I see more bluster than breakthrough.