The One Move That Might Save Mideast Peace Talks

The Game Changer John Kerry Could Still Deliver

Sadat’s Heirs? Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (left) sits next to Qatari Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani.
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Sadat’s Heirs? Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (left) sits next to Qatari Premier and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 11, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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Whatever else might come of Secretary of State John Kerry’s tottering Middle East peace effort, it will leave behind an intellectual legacy in the form of a new addition to the lexicon of high-stakes diplomacy: “Poof.”

That’s the word that the secretary interjected into his April 8 Senate testimony, while narrating the missteps that led to the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, to designate the precise moment when the process went kablooey.

It was a moment that observers around the world, the cynical ones, at least, had been awaiting with morbid anticipation since the talks began, like a movie audience waiting for the runaway train to crash. There were those who hoped Kerry knew what he was getting into, that he had serious grounds for believing the two sides could find common ground, if not in the nine months they’d agreed on then at least in some follow-up round. But as time went on that seemed less and less plausible. To paraphrase Kerry, a month went by, and then two months, and now — poof, we’re here.

In the end the big question wasn’t what the final peace agreement would look like, but who would be blamed when there wasn’t one. Israel looked like it was going to avoid getting stuck with the hot potato since it was the dispirited Palestinians who first indicated that they didn’t want to extend the talks past the April 29 deadline, while Israel seemed amenable.

On March 29, though, Netanyahu decided to please his restive right flank by withholding the fourth round of Palestinian prisoner releases he’d promised last year as a gesture to get the talks going. Things started to snowball. Abbas used the canceled prisoner release as an excuse to abandon his own pre-talks gesture by signing 15 United Nations conventions in the name of the sovereign state of Palestine that the General Assembly recognized in 2012.

That might have clinched the Blame Game in Bibi’s favor. But within hours of Abbas’s April 1 signing ceremony, Israel spoiled its own victory: Its housing ministry approved tenders for 708 housing units in the Gilo section of East Jerusalem, built on land Israel captured in 1967.

That was Kerry’s “poof” moment. Both sides, he conceded, had “wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful.” But he singled out Israel’s actions, skipping the prisoner release and issuing the tenders, as the breaking point.

The State Department later pointed out that Kerry didn’t mean to blame Israel. He’d called both sides “unhelpful.” Nobody was fooled, though. It was Israel that got “poofed.”

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