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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

'Secret back channel' doomed 'peace talks'?

The New Republic reports that the failure of last summer's 'peace talks' was brought about by the use of a secret back channel between Prime Minister Netanyahu's personal attorney, Yitzchak Molho, and an unnamed and apparently unauthorized confidante of 'moderate' 'Palestinian' President Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen. This is from the first link.
The secret channelreported here for the first timecreated substantial progress toward an agreement. But it also had one fundamental flaw, which contributed to the collapse of Kerry's entire process. Abbas’s supposed representative was in fact holding these talks without a real mandate from the Palestinian President; the concessions he discussed with Molho didn't represent the President's views. Parts of this story remain unsolvedmost importantly, why this lack of a mandate was missed or ignored in real time. But what can be told is enough to raise some hard questions about Kerry's effort, and offer important lessons for future attempts at reaching an agreement. 
The extent of Abbas's detachment from the secret-channel's product became clear in early 2014, when Kerry decided to merge the two negotiation tracks. The understanding that had developed through the secret channel was spilled into the discussions that Indyk's team was holding with both sides over a "framework document.” Netanyahu was willing to work with the fruits of the secret channel (although he insisted on airing his reservations, and the negotiations his advisers held with Indyk over the exact wording were endless). But Abbas completely rejected what had already, supposedly, been accepted by his own negotiator. He wasn't willing to show any flexibility on the Jewish state issue, and the idea of excluding any clear reference to a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem seemed like political suicide.
The anger Abbas expressed at the American framework caught Kerry by surprise: After all, these were all ideas his supposed negotiator was discussing with Molho. Realizing he had a problem with Abbas, Kerry tried to convince Netanyahu to tilt some of the provisions in Abbas's direction. But the Israeli Prime Minister was not having it. "We already agreed on these issues in the secret channel," he told the Secretary, according to a former senior U.S. official.
"Bibi is angry at Kerry for opening up understandings that everybody considered a done deal, just because Abbas had changed his mind,” an Israeli Minister told me in February. But a Palestinian official rebuffed this criticism, saying that Abbas never changed his mind on anything: "He was presented with positions that no Palestinian leader could ever accept, and that he personally had spoken out against many times."
For some, it was always clear that the positions presented by the supposed "Palestinian negotiator" in this secret channel were totally unacceptable for Abbas. Officials involved in the process admit in retrospect that there was too much wishful thinking regarding the backchannel.
A major reason for the skepticism of some people involved in the negotiations toward this backchannel, had to do with Abbas's ostensible confidante. A number of Israeli, American, and Palestinian officials claimed that it was a miscalculation to assume this person would have authority to make concessions on delicate issues. One senior Palestinian official told me that those in the American and Israeli camps who thought otherwise were "fools."
 A possibility that's not really considered here is that this was all an effort by the 'Palestinians' to see if Israel was bluffing. They never intended to make any concessions but they wanted to see if Israel would. Now, they will pocket the concessions made in the 'back channel' and insist that the 'negotiations' start from there the next time.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

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