TIME

Israelis and Palestinians Play Blame Game as Deadline for Peace Deal Expires

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians expected Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to result in a pact, as the prospects for success were dim from the start

The deadline for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians expired without a deal on Tuesday, with the two sides blaming each other for the lack of a breakthrough in the negotiations brokered by the U.S.

Israel suspended the talks earlier this month after Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who leads both the Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party that governs the West Bank, unexpectedly announced a reconciliation pact with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that oversees the Gaza strip.

Although neither side actually expected the talks to bear fruit, the blame game that had played out in the background ever since the negotiations began nine months ago was center stage as the April 29 deadline for a peace deal came and went.

“Unfortunately, Israel never gave the negotiations a chance to succeed,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement accompanied by a six-page report detailing Israeli “violations” during the nine-month period. Meanwhile, over the weekend, an unnamed Israeli official declared that it was Abbas who had “administered the coup de grace to the peace process.”

“The international blame game,” says Israeli analyst Mark Heller, “has been the main subtext of the negotiations all along.”

The prospects for success were dim from the outset, given that the two sides had to be coaxed into starting the discussions, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry playing the role of referee.

According to officials on both sides, and countless reports in both Israeli and Palestinian media, the talks only began after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a promise that Abbas would suspend his efforts at the U.N., where Palestine was recognized as a state in 2012, granting it access to institutions that include the International Criminal Court, a sore point for Israel.

In return, Netanyahu was asked to give up something as well. One option was a freeze on settlement construction on the West Bank, the land where a Palestinian state will ostensibly stand, but where Israel has built almost 200 towns and subdivisions. Netanyahu demurred. He had frozen construction in 2009 and paid a price with his political base, which is prosettlements. This time he chose another option: agreeing to release 104 Palestinian prisoners.

It was a painful decision; many of the prisoners had killed Israelis. But, politically, the pain was tempered by the freedom on settlements: the prisoners were released in batches, and with every release, Netanyahu announced more construction activity. The final tally was released Tuesday by Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements but is widely regarded as scrupulous in recording their expansion. Israel gave the nod to plans for some 13,851 new units over the past nine months, or 50 new homes a day.

This played into the Palestinians’ hands, complains Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence who now runs the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a think tank at Tel Aviv University. Settlements already keep Palestinians from 40% of the West Bank, and every expansion fed the narrative that Israel does not really intend to give up the territory it is supposed to be negotiating to leave.

That perception was encouraged by Kerry, who during an April 8 appearance before the U.S. Senate, said the talks went “poof” after Israel’s Housing Minister approved a batch of homes as U.S. officials were trying to contain a crisis triggered when Netanyahu failed to release the final set of Palestinian prisoners under the agreement struck at the start of the talks. Abbas retaliated by signing U.N. treaties.

“For nine months, Israel’s Prime Minister and the PA chairman ran around and tried to cast the blame on each other,” Yael Paz-Melamed wrote in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv the next morning. “Israel, it must be said, lost this battle.”

But last Wednesday, Abbas made a risky move in abruptly agreeing to reconcile with Hamas. The announcement was popular among Palestinians, but outraged Israelis, who know Hamas only from its signature weapon, the suicide bombing.

Netanyahu wasted no time. A day later, his security cabinet unanimously voted to suspend the talks. “We are not going to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas,” Netanyahu declared.

“Most of communication is about framing,” says Heller, editor of Strategic Assessment, a quarterly published by INSS. “As long as the Palestinian’s frame is about settlements, that works against Israel’s advantage. If Israel can frame it about terrorism or terrorists, that works to Israel’s advantage. And the fact is, Hamas is legally and diplomatically defined as a terrorist group. That should help in places where Israel can get a fair hearing.”

The reality of the Hamas-Fatah deal is of course more nuanced. Hamas is nominally committed to erasing Israel, but works to suppress rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Recently, a former Israeli national-security adviser says Israel should recognize Hamas. And what’s more, a unified Palestinian government can claim to negotiate on behalf of the entire Palestinian people, a point a U.S. official reportedly made to Jewish leaders last week, according to the Hebrew daily Haaretz.

Meanwhile, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy, writing in the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday, said that Hamas clearly acted out of weakness. According to Halevy, its position is so vulnerable that Israel should either move to eradicate it militarily or finally sit down and talk. “I have been saying and writing this for ten years,” he wrote.

Despite the finger-pointing between the two sides, the talks may be revived. As the Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid writes in a column for TIME, some in Netanyahu’s governing coalition want to see what a Palestinian unity government looks like before deciding on “where to go from here.” But if April 29 really does turn out to be the end of the road for these negotiations, the blame game would appear to have gone Israel’s way at the last moment. “Abbas put his foot in it,” Heller says, referring to the unity deal, “and gave Bibi just what he wanted.”

TIME

Why I Voted in Favor of Suspending Peace Negotiations With the Palestinians

Tzipi Livni, Saeb Erekat, Yitzhak Molcho, Mohammed Shtayyeh, John Kerry
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, sits across from Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, third right, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, second right, Yitzhak Molcho, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fourth right, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, at an Iftar dinner at the State Department in Washington, July 29, 2013. Charles Dharapak—AP

Here are 48 hours from life in the Middle East.

Tuesday night: Meeting of the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams along with the American mediators. For the first time in a long time, the atmosphere was excellent. New solutions were proposed for old problems and the word “breakthrough” was mentioned more than once. The goal was a clear and mutual one — to reach an agreement that would extend the negotiations and move them to an even more senior level.

Wednesday morning: Shock, disappointment. Without warning, President of the Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen declares that he is signing an agreement for a unity government with Hamas. Just two days prior, during the Passover holiday, Hamas fired Qassam rockets into southern Israel. Rockets landed not far from a synagogue in the town of Sderot and miraculously no one was hurt.

Thursday evening: After an unusually long meeting of the Israeli government’s security cabinet, of which I am a member, it was decided to suspend peace talks until it becomes clear whether or not the new Palestinian government is formed. The decision, to which I was party, passed unanimously.

This was by no means a trivial decision for me. When the current Israeli government was formed, I told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that while I would not stand by with a stopwatch, I had no intention of remaining in a government for the long term that would not undertake negotiations aimed at separating from the Palestinians.

My views have not changed. I believe that we must not yield one inch when it comes to Israel’s vital security needs, but we must stop building settlements outside the so-called “blocs” and achieve a separation with the Palestinians in the context of which a large portion of the settlements will be dismantled and Israel will withdraw from much of the West Bank.

An arrangement along these lines would be no easy feat, since the Palestinians already refused twice — in 2000 and in 2008 — to sign an agreement that would have granted them more than 90 % of their territorial demands. Israel is still ready to go great lengths to reach an agreement, however Abu Mazen has time and time again avoided at the last minute signing an agreement.

Despite all this, I have not given up. Nothing is easy in the Middle East, but we must continue to work towards an agreement with all our might and despite all the obstacles, because the alternative option is eternal conflict and the loss of Israel’s Jewish identity. My party and I remain committed, within reason, to continuing the peace process and will continue to support it.

And yet, I cast my vote for suspending the negotiations. Why?

Because Hamas is a not the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, but rather a Jihadist terror organization whose express purpose is to kill and maim Jews simply because they’re Jews.

I voted the way I did because I cannot understand how anyone could expect us to negotiate with a government, half of which claims to want to reach an agreement with us while the other half claims it is not bound by that same agreement. One half claims to want peace and the other half — simultaneously — shoots thousands of rockets and mortar shells on innocent civilians and rules over Gaza in a reign of Islamic terror that has resulted in the murder of hundreds of Christians just because they are Christians, the oppression of women, and the public hanging of homosexuals from electricity poles.

One half speaks English and tells the world what it wants to hear, and the other half is an Islamist organization that denies the very existence of the Holocaust, was outlawed in the U.S. and in most European countries and has claimed, in an official statement of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (and as of this week, the new partner of Abu Mazen): “Osama bin Laden was a Muslim freedom fighter” and condemned his execution.

As mentioned previously, I am willing to sacrifice a lot to reach an agreement. This is also why the cabinet decision was worded so carefully and so precisely. Whoever reads the actual text of the decision will discover that we did not call for the cessation of the talks, but rather for their suspension. Abu Mazen declared that the Fatah-Hamas government would be formed in five weeks’ time. Despite this flagrant breach of trust, we have not closed the door. When the new government is formed, we can decide — in consultation with the U.S. — where to go from here. Our goal was and remains to continue talks until an agreement is reached. But before that, we must know something very basic: With whom exactly are we talking?

Yair Lapid is Israel’s minister of finance and the head of Yesh Atid party.

TIME Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Israel-Palestine Peace Talks Mired in Uncertainty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 6, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on April 6, 2014. GALI TIBBON—EPA

Analysts say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's disclosure that Israel would halt the negotiations with Palestinians, following the announcement this week that rival factions Fatah and Hamas would seek to form a unity government, could just be a tactical move

Israel’s decision to suspend peace talks with the Palestinians might appear to signal the end of negotiations between the two sides—but the move has only served to create yet more uncertainty about their future.

The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Thursday arrived as a thunderclap: after a five-hour meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet, the vote to suspend the negotiations that have been championed by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was unanimous. But analysts said they understood the suspension to be just that—a pause in the negotiations “until the make-up of the new Palestinian government and its policy become clear,” Barak Ravid wrote in Haaretz, the respected Israeli daily.

Netanyahu was incensed that Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate who heads both the Palestinian Authority and the secular Fatah party, had agreed to patch over a seven-year rift with Hamas, the militant Islamist group whose charter denies Israel’s right to exist. The reconciliation announced on Wednesday caught the Israeli government by surprise.

But does that mean the talks—which are set to expire on April 29—are over? “No, of course not,” says Efraim Inbar, the conservative head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “We’ll see what happens with Hamas.”

Kerry had to coax both sides into participating in the talks, which began in July, and neither has reported substantial progress. When U.S. efforts to extend them through the end of the year failed three weeks ago, Kerry said the Obama administration would re-assess its investment in the effort.

Still, both Netanyahu and Abbas have indicated they want to continue talking, and as a practical matter, Palestinian unity might even improve the prospects of a deal. The European Union welcomed the pact nominally ending the factional rift, which had divided the Palestinian public both politically and territorially, with Hamas governing the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million Palestinians reside, while Fatah held sway on the West Bank, home to another 2.5 million.

A senior Fatah official on Thursday said the unity pact with Hamas was made with the understanding that the group would support the peace talks, regardless of what its charter says. “We wouldn’t have been prepared—or able—to sign a reconciliation agreement without it being clear to all the Palestinian factions that we are leading our nation to a two-states-for-two-nations solution,” former PA security chief Jabril Rajoub told Israel’s Army Radio. Rajoub tried to turn the tables on Netanyahu, pointing out that parties in his own governing coalition rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, yet talks proceeded anyway.

Inbar, who supports Netanyahu, says he understood the Israeli cabinet’s decision as a tactical move, calculated to push back at Abbas after the Palestinian leader took the initiative.

“It’s good for domestic politics,” Inbar says, of the Israeli cabinet vote. He adds that it could also stir the Obama administration to intercede on Israel’s behalf. “Maybe the Americans will wake up, I don’t know.”

For the time being, the Israelis have seized on the extremist reputation of Hamas as an opportunity to cast Abbas as the reckless party. After the reconciliation deal was announced, a post on Netanyahu’s Facebook page showed a photo of Osama bin Laden alongside an picture of Abbas shaking hands with a senior Hamas official who had publicly lamented the terror mastermind’s death. Below ran the caption: “This is President Abbas’ new partner.” What analysts call “the blame game” has played out in the background of the negotiations since their start, with each side quietly angling to avoid being seen as responsible for their assumed eventual collapse.

For most of that time, Israel appeared most vulnerable to the blame, largely because, as the talks proceeded nominally toward establishing a Palestinian state, Netanyahu steadily expanded the approximately 200 Jewish settlements on the West Bank territory where that state was expected to stand. Kerry appeared to seal that assumption earlier this month when he told a Senate committee that Israel’s approval of 700 more units in a settlement undermined U.S. efforts to extend the talks.

But as long as the fate of the talks remains unclear, so does the answer to the question of who might bear the blame for their end. For all the drama of Thursday’s cabinet vote, its announcement felt more incremental than final to many observers.

“It could be tactical leverage, or maybe something more substantial,” says Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a former Israeli peace negotiator, now at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University. “It could be a way to make sure that Hamas doesn’t gain too much influence inside whatever government emerges.”

TIME Middle East

Palestinian Unity Deal Met With Skepticism

From left: Fatah movement Leader Azzam Al-Ahmad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014.
Fatah movement leader Azzam al-Ahmad, left, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh speak during a press conference following the meeting to end Palestinian divisions between Fatah and Hamas movement in Gaza City on April 23, 2014 Mustafa Hassona—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have been here before. They've buried the hatchet with "historic pacts" that fizzled twice since 2011. There's skepticism — but also a glimmer of hope — that this time could be different

There’s no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the reconciliation agreement signed on Wednesday between Hamas and Fatah, the rival Palestinian political factions that split the Gaza Strip and the West Bank between them seven years ago — ending any practical semblance of Palestinian national unity. Twice since 2011, the parties have grandly announced similar “historic pacts” that would supposedly end the rift, and neither has amounted to much: the militant Islamists of Hamas still govern Gaza, the moderate nationalists of Fatah hold sway in the West Bank.

“No, it’s not real,” says Abdullah Zeud, 28, who owns a computer store in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “It’s just like every meeting these guys have held in the past, which ends up with them fighting and not agreeing on anything. They continue to hold their meetings, bring the Palestinian people’s hopes up, and then it all ends up with them disagreeing over everything”

“It is becoming a joke,” says Im Issa, 52, a Ramallah housewife. “Why is this happening now? Is it because they have found themselves going nowhere with the negotiations and want to try and put pressure on Israel?”

It could be. The timing of the announcement, six days before the April 29 deadline for U.S.-sponsored peace talks, suggests Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah, may have chosen to push back against pressure from Israel and the U.S., which Palestinians see as insisting on new concessions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was angered by the latest announcement, declaring, as he did after the previous pacts, that Abbas “must choose. Does he want reconciliation with Hamas, or peace with Israel?”

By appearing to choose Hamas, Abbas wins points with the Palestinian public (which strongly opposes the factional rift), while perhaps also driving a wedge between the Americans and Netanyahu. “Is he hoping this will raise alarm bells in Washington, and they’ll go back to the Israelis and say, ‘We’ve got to offer him something’?” asks Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “Yes, the timing is suspicious.”

But Rabbani also sees evidence that the new pact may well be more credible than those that came before. Both factions, he notes, have lately been weakened — Fatah by the trajectory of the peace talks, Hamas by a cascade of political bad news. First Hamas lost its headquarters in Syria, triggering a sharp drop in financial support from Iran. Even worse was the military’s July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, which largely sealed off Gaza’s last remaining open border; the new Egyptian regime declared Hamas a terrorist group.

There’s also the photos of the signing ceremony, which took place in Gaza City. The earlier pacts were inked in Cairo and Doha, and championed by Hamas’ chairman, Khaled Meshaal, who travels the Middle East as a kind of roving ambassador. Both pacts were opposed by Hamas leaders trapped in Gaza — the very Hamas officials beaming with their arms in the air on the dais on Monday.

“The opposition in the past was from the Gaza-based leadership,” Rabbani says, “and this time those are the ones who are signing.”

Significantly, the pact is structured to avoid forcing together the rival parties. It calls for installing a technocratic government in five weeks’ time, which will prepare elections in six months. Meanwhile, Fatah will continue to govern the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas will rule Gaza. In theory, at least, it could work. And some even believe it will.

“From the things I’ve been hearing on the news today, it really sounds as though the two parties are really serious this time,” says Mohammad Ali, 35, a construction worker in the West Bank city of el-Bireh. “I think that the two parties have realized that they don’t have any more options, the negotiations have not achieved anything, and they need to unite with one another in order to confront Israel as one people united with common goals and objectives.”

But as Rabbani points out, and as the last two pacts announced with no less fanfare made clear, “Signing is one thing, and implementation is another.”

— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Ramallah

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