Israeli and Palestinian leaders were unwilling to make the “gut-wrenching” compromises needed for peace, a top U.S. official said on Thursday, faulting both sides for the collapse of talks last month.
Offering his first public account of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed, nine-month effort to strike a peace deal by April 29, U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk made clear there was blame on both sides, citing Israeli settlement-building as well as the Palestinians’ signing of 15 international conventions.
However, Indyk suggested talks may resume eventually, citing the start-and-stop example of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s ultimately successful 1975 effort to disengage Egyptian and Israeli forces in the Sinai.
“What was true then is also possibly true today,” Indyk told a conference hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank. “In the Middle East, it’s never over.”
The central issues to be resolved in the more than six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict include borders, security, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
“One problem that revealed itself in these past nine months is that the parties, although showing some flexibility in the negotiations, do not feel the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace,” Indyk said.
“It is easier for the Palestinians to sign conventions and appeal to international bodies in their supposed pursuit of justice and their rights, a process which by definition requires no compromise,” he said. “It is easier for Israeli politicians to avoid tension in the governing coalition and for the Israeli people to maintain the current, comfortable status quo.”
“The fact is, both the Israelis and Palestinians missed opportunities and took steps that undermined the process,” Indyk said.
On April 24, Israel suspended the talks after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s unexpected unity pact with the rival Islamist Hamas group, a step that appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.-sponsored negotiations.
Indyk also described the Palestinian decision to sign the 15 international treaties - in what seemed a gesture of defiance toward Israel, which believes such moves may confer legitimacy on the Palestinians - as “particularly counterproductive.”
He also detailed Israeli moves to build additional homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and cited these as among the central factors that undermined the negotiations.
During the past nine months, Indyk said Israel had tendered to build 4,800 housing units in areas that Palestinian maps have acknowledged would go to Israel. However, it also advanced planning for another 8,000 units in other parts of the West Bank where the Palestinians hope to establish a state of their own.
This, he suggested, undercut the talks by helping to convince Abbas that he did not have a serious negotiating partner in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two sides met face-to-face, with the United States sitting in as a largely silent observer, for the first six months after the talks resumed on July 29, Indyk said.
In the next phase of about two months, the United States negotiated first with Israel and then with the Palestinians on “bridging proposals” to try to bring them closer together.
“During that time … Abu Mazen (Abbas) shut down,” Indyk said, saying Israeli settlement activity as well as uncertainty about who might eventually succeed him were factors.
“He came to the conclusion that he didn’t have a reliable partner for the kind of two-state solution that he was looking for and he … shifted to his legacy and the succession,” he said. “He is 79 now. He is weary. He wants to leave office and he is more focused on succession now than on making peace.”