Critics have long maintained that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had one goal over the past several months: to avoid being blamed for the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians. But on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to do just that, by telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Israel had delayed a promised release of Palestinian prisoners and then announced the construction of 700 new units of housing in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to be their capital. In response, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broke his promise to refrain from taking unilateral action at the United Nations, and signed papers indicating his intention to join 15 international treaties.
“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said. “We find ourselves where we are.”
This chain of events is unfortunate but not surprising, in light of the deep distrust between the parties. While it’s a serious setback, it need not be fatal. Both sides should be given an opportunity to walk back their damaging — but reversible — actions. If they don’t, it is strong evidence that they weren’t serious about peace in the first place.
Netanyahu must understand that Palestinians view the release of the last batch of prisoners as proof that he is a man of his word. If he can’t or won’t secure enough votes in the Israeli Knesset to order their release, then there is little chance he will be willing or able to obtain support for a Palestinian state.
Israel committed last July to freeing 104 Palestinians who have been in prison since before the 1993 Oslo Accords as a goodwill gesture aimed at restarting the talks. Three batches have already been let go. The final batch is the most sensitive because it includes 14 Arabs who are citizens of Israel. Israeli officials now say they never promised to release Arab Israelis, but Abbas insists that Kerry promised they would be included.
The prisoner releases have been painful and marked by protests in Israel. But that is exactly why Palestinians and US officials view them as a test of Israel’s seriousness. Failure to follow through with the final batch sends a message that peace talks are less effective than the violent tactics of Hamas, which secured the release of more than 1,000 prisoners, including six Arab Israelis, in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
If Netanyahu’s aim is simply to remain prime minister for as long as he can, then his refusal to follow through with the unpopular final prisoner release makes sense. It will help him keep his conservative coalition together a little longer. But if his goal is to go down in history as the man who cemented Israel’s future as a Jewish democracy, with internationally recognized borders accepted by its neighbors, then Netanyahu must look at the big picture. To make history, he will have to shake up his political alliances.
Just as Netanyahu is sensitive to his hard-line constituency, so too is Abbas sensitive to the complaints of a Palestinian population that is increasingly skeptical of the value of peace talks. After the prisoner release was delayed by a few days, Abbas announced that he would sign onto the 15 international treaties, breaking the spirit of his own commitments. His actions were premature and unwise. But his retaliation was carefully calibrated. Although he sought to sign onto treaties, he did not ask to be admitted to UN agencies. Notably, he did not seek to join the International Criminal Court, a move that could expose Israeli soldiers to war crimes claims. He walked up to the red line, but did not cross it.
It does not bode well that talks have broken down over the release of 14 prisoners, when far more difficult issues await resolution. But there is still a chance that these two flawed leaders will pull back from the brink and show that they are worth the enormous effort that Kerry has expended. As hope for peace fades, an increasing number of Palestinians will turn to violence. This is a moment in history that calls for the resolve of statesmen, not the blame games of politicians.