Why the 'peace talks' failedjust a few of the reasons why the 'peace talks' failed.
In his rush to announce the resumption of talks before flying home, though, Kerry left the conversation with two serious misunderstandings that would sow the seeds for later surprises. Netanyahu’s 2,000-plus figure covered only homes that were open for bidding. (In his mind, long-term building plans were a different story.) Nor did it include East Jerusalem, a part of the West Bank that Israel considered sovereign territory. Focused on the big picture, Kerry hadn’t asked for such clarifications.
The more consequential miscommunication concerned the prisoners. Netanyahu told Kerry that he was prepared to release approximately 80 of them (excluding those with Israeli identity cards). Kerry asked for—and thought he heard Netanyahu agree to—all 104. “Both of them like to talk for long periods of time,” said someone who has dealt with both leaders. “And I’m not sure that when one of them is lecturing the other at length, the other guy is really listening very carefully.”
Two weeks later, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met at a hotel west of Jerusalem. Both sides showed up angry. Erekat and Shtayyeh were steaming at new Israeli settlement plans that had been announced immediately after the second prisoner release days earlier, and at Netanyahu’s (false) claim in an interview that Abbas had accepted the new building in return for the prisoners. Meanwhile, Livni and Molho, who had adhered rigorously to Kerry’s gag order on the talks, were incensed by a slew of Palestinian news stories that they believed their counterparts had leaked. Both sides, excepting Molho, were frustrated at the lack of progress they’d made over three months. And the claustrophobic setting—a small bedroom that had been converted into a conference room—didn’t help to calm nerves.
Erekat stormed into the room and slammed his briefcase on the table. In recent weeks, with the talks faltering, he had begun drafting a Palestinian Plan B that would include ending Fatah's six-year-old rift with Hamas and resuming the U.N. campaign—steps that would doom the process. Pointing at the briefcase, he declared: “This case contains our requests to join fifteen U.N. treaties and conventions, and my president will get my suggestion that he should sign them immediately if you say it was prisoners for settlements. And if he doesn’t approve it, I will resign tonight.”
“You can’t do this,” Livni said, raising her voice. “This is not what we agreed on.”
“What we agreed on was prisoners for no-U.N., not prisoners for settlements,” he barked.
“Stop shouting,” Livni said. “You’re being unfair.” But Erekat kept yelling that the settlements were making him a pariah among his people.
As Livni listened to Erekat complain about his political problems, something inside her snapped.
“Do you think this is easy for me?” she shouted. She recited a litany of some of the worst Palestinian prisoners that Israel was releasing for the sake of the talks: one who had murdered an elderly Holocaust survivor, another who had stabbed two teenagers, yet another who had hurled a firebomb at a bus, killing a mother and her children. “These are your heroes,” she said, disdainfully. “I don’t know why they are your heroes, but I pushed to release them to get these talks started so we could get a peace deal, so if I can do it, you can accept a few houses. Houses can be demolished. We can’t put those murderers back in jail, and I can’t get back three lives that were just taken.”
Erekat shot back: “What should I tell all the Palestinians who were killed?”
Finally, Indyk intervened, waving his arms like a baseball umpire making the safe sign. “Time out!” he screamed. The Palestinian negotiators went out to a nearby veranda, and minutes later, Indyk—whom Kerry had dubbed “the Saeb whisperer”—joined them. “I can’t take it anymore,” Erekat told Indyk. “It’s time for me to move on. Netanyahu is cheating us. He is not a man of peace.”
It was a refrain Indyk had grown accustomed to hearing. “I can tell you that he’s changing,” he said. “He’s moving.” After a few minutes, Indyk and the Palestinians returned to the room, and the meeting resumed, awkwardly. When they parted after three hours, the negotiators shook hands, as they had always done. But it was clear something had changed. That night, Erekat and Shtayyeh presented a joint letter of resignation to Abbas, while Livni called her top aides to vent. “I was one hundred percent sure it was over,” said one.
In early December, Kerry presented Allen’s proposals to the Israelis. While they sidestepped the question of when Israeli forces would leave the Jordan Valley, they sketched out what the area—and the rest of the West Bank—might look like after they did. The future Palestinian-Jordanian border would include new early warning infrastructure, an invisible Israeli presence (via cameras) at border crossings, and top-shelf American gadgetry. Livni liked the package. So did most of Israel’s security brass. Even hard-line Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was making conciliatory noises. “Israel will not get more than it is getting from Kerry,” he said publicly. Netanyahu saw it as a basis for discussion.
Netanyahu’s hawkish defense minister—Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon—thought it was worthless. “The Americans think we are natives who will be impressed with their technology,” he told one confidant. “Don’t they know that we are the masters of technology?” Unfortunately for everyone involved, it was impossible to imagine the Israeli government approving any deal without Ya'alon's support.
For months, the Americans had courted the crusty defense minister and concluded that he was—in the words of one senior official—“beyond repair.” Ya’alon, meanwhile, railed about American naïveté in off-the-record briefings with journalists. On January 14, an Israeli newspaper published some of his remarks, including his diagnosis of Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic.” “The only thing that can save us,” Ya’alon said, “is for John Kerry to win his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”
Abbas had always been more wary. From the beginning, he felt as if Kerry was privileging Netanyahu’s needs over his. And the numbers seemed to bear the Palestinian leader out: Kerry had met with Netanyahu nearly twice as often as he had with him. It was not lost on the Palestinians, either, that the secretary’s team—Indyk, Lowenstein, Makovsky, Schwartz, Yaffe, Goldenberg, Blumenthal—sounded like a Bar Mitzvah guest list. To Abbas, the asymmetry of the diplomatic triangle was best illustrated by a December meeting between him and Kerry at the muqata. The meeting, devoted to security issues, was supposed to have been attended also by General Allen. Kerry showed up without him. When Abbas asked where he was, Kerry apologized and explained that Allen needed to stay in Jerusalem and work more with Netanyahu.
The depth of Palestinian alienation became clear to Kerry and his team only on February 19, when the two sides met for dinner at Le Maurice Hotel in Paris—the kickoff to a three-day parley. As the Palestinians walked in the door, each American was struck with the same thought: These guys do not look like they’re in a good mood. Following dinner, Kerry met alone with Abbas while Erekat and Indyk spoke in a separate room. Afterward, Kerry and Indyk got in the car that would take them to their rooms at the Grande Hotel. The secretary turned to his envoy: “That was really negative.” At around the same time, Abbas, who was nursing a terrible cold, saw Erekat in the hall and told him that he was going straight to sleep. “It was a difficult meeting,” he said. “I’ll brief you tomorrow.”
The next morning, at around 7:30, Indyk called Erekat. “The secretary wants to see you,” he said. Erekat was surprised at the early time of the summons. This must be important. He put on a suit and took a cab to the Grande. When he and Indyk got to Kerry’s Louis XIII-style suite, the secretary answered the door. He was dressed casually: hotel slippers, no jacket or tie. He looked concerned. After a moment of silence, the first words came out of Kerry’s mouth. “Why is Abu Mazen so angry with me?”
Erekat responded that he hadn’t yet been briefed on the meeting, so Kerry offered to get his notes. “I barely said a word, and he started saying, ‘I cannot accept this,’” Kerry grumbled, going through some of Abbas’s red lines.
“What do you want?” Erekat said. “These are his positions. We are sick and tired of Bibi the Great. He’s taking you for a ride.”
“No one takes me for a ride!”
“He is refusing to negotiate on a map or even say 1967.”
“I’ve moved him,” Kerry said, “I’ve moved him.”
“Where?” Erekat said, raising his voice. “Show me! This is just the impression he’s giving you.”
The next month, Abbas led a Palestinian delegation to Washington. At a March 16 lunch at Kerry’s Georgetown home, the secretary asked Abbas if he’d accept delaying the fourth prisoner release by a few days. Kerry was worried that the Israelis were wavering. “No,” Abbas said. “I cannot do this.” Abbas would later describe that moment as a turning point. If the Americans can’t convince Israel to give me 26 prisoners, he thought then, how will they ever get them to give me East Jerusalem? At the meal, Erekat noticed Abbas displaying some of his telltale signs of discomfort. He was crossing his legs, looking over at him every two minutes. The index cards on which he normally took notes had been placed back in his suit pocket. Abbas was no longer interested in what was being said.
The next day at the White House, Obama tried his luck with the Palestinian leader. He reviewed the latest American proposals, some of which had been tilted in Abbas’s direction. (The document would now state categorically that there would be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem.) “Don’t quibble with this detail or that detail,” Obama said. “The occupation will end. You will get a Palestinian state. You will never have an administration as committed to that as this one.” Abbas and Erekat were not impressed.
After the meeting, the Palestinian negotiator saw Susan Rice—Abbas’s favorite member of the Obama administration—in the hall. “Susan,” he said, “I see we’ve yet to succeed in making it clear to you that we Palestinians aren’t stupid.” Rice couldn’t believe it. “You Palestinians,” she told him, “can never see the fucking big picture.”
Like Kerry, Abbas felt that his credibility was at stake. He had promised the Palestinian people that the prisoners would be released on schedule, on March 29. But as the date approached, that was looking less and less likely. So Abbas continued working with Erekat on what he was calling “the Palestinian nuclear option.” He even put a timer on it: If Israel didn’t vote to release the fourth tranche by seven o’clock on the evening of April 1, Abbas would formally resume the U.N. bid in a grand ceremony at the muqata.
The night before that deadline, Kerry was supposed to meet Abbas at nine o’clock in Ramallah, but as of eleven, there was no sign of him. Erekat called the U.S. consul-general, who told him that Kerry was meeting with Netanyahu, and that it was running long. Abbas wanted to sleep, so he dispatched Erekat and Faraj to meet Kerry after midnight in Jerusalem. In his suite at the David Citadel, Kerry promised Erekat that the Israeli government would vote on the fourth prisoner release the following day.
“When?” Erekat pressed.
Kerry was peeved that Erekat was insisting on a specific hour. “Before noon,” he said.Noon passed without a vote. Then one o’clock, then two, then three. Making matters worse, Israel’s Housing Ministry approved 708 new homes for a disputed neighborhood in East Jerusalem that afternoon. Abbas was nearing the end of his patience.
Around seven o'clock, he sat in his office with Erekat and Faraj. “Have you heard any word from the Israelis?” he asked Erekat.
“No,” Erekat replied. “Not a word.”
“How about you?” he asked Faraj, who gave the same answer.
The U.N.-ceremony attendees were taking their seats down the hall. “Let’s give them another half-hour,” he said.
Livni had no idea what was happening inside the muqata. She was sitting in the hall outside Netanyahu’s office, along with many other people, waiting for her turn to speak to the prime minister. But shortly before eight, she got a bad feeling: Everyone around her started receiving text messages, all at once. An aide turned on the television. There, beneath the Jerusalem panorama at the same table from which he had first lobbied his peers to resume talks nine months earlier, Abbas declared to a roomful of officials and VIPs that “the Palestinian leadership has unanimously approved a decision to seek membership of fifteen U.N. conventions and international treaties.”
“This is our right,” he continued.“All we get from the Israeli government is talk.” As Abbas took out his pen to sign the U.N. conventions, with Erekat at his side, the room gave him a standing ovation.
Earlier that afternoon, while Abbas and Erekat were watching the clock at the muqata, Netanyahu sat in his office, taking meeting after meeting. First, he would invite in Livni and Kerry’s team to discuss the coalescing Pollard-for-prisoners-for-talks deal. Then, he would bring in a group of pro-settler politicians led by Housing Minister Uri Ariel to calm their nerves about the impending settlement freeze. Wow, Ariel thought each time he passed Livni in the doorway, it’s like we’re doing shifts.
Livni was pressing Netanyahu for an immediate vote on the deal. “Everything is ready,” she said, “just get the ministers here.” Netanyahu, however, was working with Kerry on an exchange of letters that would make everything official. Kerry, meanwhile, was waiting on White House approval of a single paragraph—the Pollard paragraph. But Rice’s staff was still engaged in frantic negotiations with Israeli officials over the particulars: when Pollard would go free, where he could travel, what he could say. Though Netanyahu had promised Kerry the night before that he would hold the vote today, he had told Kerry and Indyk earlier that morning that he wanted to wait one more to prepare Israeli public opinion. Indyk was incredulous. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he said, “you are playing with fire.”
The Israeli right was also in rebellion mode, with Likud officials vowing to resign and Bennett again threatening to leave the government if the fourth tranche was released. As Netanyahu pressed the merits of the extension deal to Ariel and his hard-right allies during one of their shifts, one of his aides entered the room: “Mr. Prime Minister, Abu Mazen has just signed fifteen U.N. conventions.” Netanyahu froze. For years, he had feared that the Palestinians might join the International Criminal Court and lodge war-crimes charges against Israeli officials. “Which conventions?” he asked. After several minutes of confusion, one of the people in the room managed to locate a list. Chuckling, he told the others that the Palestinians—the Palestinians—had signed the anti-corruption charter. The room burst into laughter.
Erekat, who for months had been urging Abbas to blow up the talks, was as giddy as the settlers. That night, Indyk summoned Erekat to the U.S. Consul-General’s home in Jerusalem. The moment the Palestinian negotiator walked in the door, Indyk began yelling. “Don’t act surprised, Martin,” Erekat said, grinning. “You told me nine times in four days that the prisoners were about to be released.” (The Americans dispute Erekat’s number, claiming that they had told the Palestinians the prisoner-release vote was imminent only three or four times.) Indyk asked Erekat when the U.N. letters of accession would be submitted. He replied that the local U.N. representative would receive them the following morning at nine. “Please delay it,” Indyk said. “Just for twenty-four hours, hold it back.”
While Erekat and Indyk were going back and forth, Erekat’s phone rang. It was Livni. “OK,” she said, “so you had your little show. Now hold back the documents. We have a deal to extend the talks. The prisoners can go out in forty-eight hours, and then we can get to substance. Don’t destroy this.” Erekat told her that he was with the Americans and would have to call back. The following morning, he sent her a text message. “It’s a done deal,” he wrote. “We just handed in the documents.”
Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT.The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.
But it's a good story....