The last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is remembered as a doomed, last-ditch effort at reaching a final peace agreement. But in a recent, widely discussed essay in The American Interest, veteran Israeli negotiator and retired IDF brigadier general Michael Herzog took aim at some pervasive conventional wisdom about the talks. He argues that the negotiations were not as disastrous as they appear, while highlighting an underrated reason for their failure—namely, the U.S.’s centrality to the talks, and the arrogant mix of heavy-handedness and obliviousness that characterized Washington’s dealings with both the Israelis and Palestinians.
The negotiations, which began in July of 2013 and ended nine months later, didn’t produce a peace deal or anything close to one. Still, Herzog, who was a key participant in the negotiations, echoes U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk’s conclusion that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the talks seriously and had moved into what Indyk called “the zone of a possible agreement” as they progressed. Herzog also described a productive diplomatic backchannel between confidants of Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas that could serve as a model for future peace efforts.
In the end, the sides were too far apart, and too riven with divisions and conflicting agendas to reach any kind of agreement. But it wasn’t just Israeli or Palestinian expectations, internal politics or pathologies that killed the negotiations. Washington was adrift as well, and Herzog’s essay reads like a catalog of troublesome American tendencies related to the peace process. His account suggests that Secretary of State John Kerry’s various missteps over the course of the talks were rooted in the U.S.’s broader intellectual framework for approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that placed Washington at the center of the peace process, yet had strikingly little room for understanding that process from either side’s point of view.
As a result, U.S. management of the talks was often slipshod. According to Herzog, Kerry promised the Palestinians that Israel would release Arab security prisoners who were Israeli citizens as a negotiating precondition, seemingly without anticipating Israel’s objections to “bargain[ing] over its own citizens convicted under its own laws.” Herzog writes that Kerry’s insistence on immediate, direct final-status negotiations over a final, comprehensive peace agreement marginalized and eventually killed off the more promising backchannel talks.
The direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian teams ate up four months of the negotiating period and went nowhere. For the four months after that, the U.S.’s primary objective was to reach a “framework” for future final-status negotiations. Because the sides were negotiating through U.S. intermediaries to achieve what would inevitably be an American-produced document, success was dependent on the parties’ trust in the U.S. as an honest broker. But confidence eroded in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. Writes Herzog:
When a U.S. negotiator presented a certain position in contrast to ours, we could not always tell whether it was the articulation of a Palestinian position delivered to the U.S. side, a U.S. assumption of a Palestinian position or, in fact, a U.S. position. Months later we learned from our Palestinian counterparts that they faced the same challenge and were specifically asked by the American team not to discuss with us the contents of the framework.
When Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met for an 11th-hour face-to face attempt at rescuing the talks in April of 2014, the problems with filtering negotiations through American mediators were dramatically laid bare. According to Herzog, the Palestinian team told the Israelis that “on nine separate occasions” the Americans had given them the “specific hours” at which the Israeli cabinet was to meet to consider a release of Palestinian prisoners aimed at extending the talks. “Our jaws dropped,” Herzog writes. No such meeting had ever been scheduled since the Israelis believed the Palestinians had not met their conditions for the release to proceed—something the Americans might have been expected to know at the time.
Per Herzog, the U.S. also never fully grasped how Mahmoud Abbas himself understood the talks. As Herzog recounts, Abbas viewed the negotiations as one part of a multi-pronged diplomatic strategy. “As far as Abbas is concerned,” Herzog writes, “deep into the process he was still oscillating between three strategies at the same time: negotiating with Israel and the United States, promoting statehood through the international community, and reconciling with Hamas. In his mind, they were not mutually exclusive.”
With other options in hand, Abbas grew bitterly frustrated at what he saw as the U.S.’s failure to push Israel far enough and pointedly avoided meeting Kerry during the Secretary of State’s March 2014 trip to Ramallah. The U.S. team didn’t adequately account for Abbas’s perception of the peace talks or range of strategic alternatives. As journalists Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon recounted in a definitive report on the negotiations, Abbas’s April 2014 agreement to form a unity government with elements of Hamas—a move that killed off the talks for good—came as a complete shock to the American team.
The U.S.’s errors revealed Washington’s misguided conviction that it understood the sides well enough to singlehandedly manage their expectations, smooth over areas of mistrust, and create space for further agreement. Instead, the U.S. proved just how aloof it was from the realities of either side. And it lost sight of the fact that even the most committed and powerful outside actor is fundamentally ill-equipped to convince any two parties to consent to transformative changes within their own societies, political systems, and national self-conceptions.
Herzog’s essay leaves room for optimism, though. The backchannel was surprisingly fruitful. Netanyahu showed flexibility. The Palestinians partially agreed to key Israeli demands, including demilitarization of their future state and the presence of the IDF in the Jordan River valley. The pieces are there for someone to put together. But the United States might not be the one to do it.