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It's over

Why the Palestinians are finally giving up on Obama and the US peace process

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

"If you want," PLO executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi offered, "I can call him right now." The "him" in question was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. This was mid-November 2014; I was with a group of journalists in Ashrawi's Ramallah office, and we were all asking her about the dramatic flameout of John Kerry's effort to produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in late April. Ashrawi decided to phone a friend — President Abbas — to answer our questions. And Abbas, as it turned out, was in a talkative mood.

Abbas told a story about Secretary of State John Kerry's failed peace talks that differed greatly from what other participants have said publicly. But what was in many ways more important than the details of his story was the attitude it conveyed toward the US: a total collapse in trust. The senior Palestinian leadership has come to believe that the United States is utterly incapable of budging Israel in negotiations and thus of bringing peace. Long-simmering Palestinian frustration with America, which Palestinians have always seen as hopelessly biased towards Israel, has finally bubbled over.

The new Palestinian approach is a sharp break with the past. For over 20 years since the historic 1993 Oslo Accords between Israelis and Palestinians, there's been one dominant strategy on all sides for achieving peace in the Holy Land: direct, American-mediated talks between the two sides. The US-led negotiations of 2014, known as the Kerry talks, were in part a last-ditch effort to keep that process alive. The Palestinians had already begun moving away from the old model of talking directly with the Americans and Israelis and towards a campaign to isolate and pressure Israel internationally. But it looked to many like the Palestinians were bluffing, or only hedging — trying to bring more pressure to direct peace talks, not sidestep them.

Statements made by Abbas and other Palestinian officials this fall, however, suggest that the Palestinian leadership, having lost all faith in the Americans, is seriously committed to this new, international strategy. If they are, then the recent Palestinian moves in the United Nations and the International Criminal Court are harbingers of the future of Palestinian foreign policy — with potentially profound implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why the Palestinians say peace talks really collapsed

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John Kerry, with former Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (L) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When Abbas recounted his version of how peace talks combusted last spring, he did more than just reiterate the usual Palestinian complaints about the Israelis and Americans. Instead, he detailed a narrative that previously had not been widely reported of how he says the peace talks really ended: one in which the US promised to deliver a plan for peace but reneged. The Palestinians were left waiting for a deal that never came as Israel continued building the settlements that the Americans had promised they could stop or slow.

"The thing that really drove [Abbas] nuts," Ashrawi relates, "is that they blamed him for the talks' collapse. In his view, it's all the Israelis' — and the Americans' — fault."

Regardless of who you blame for the talks's failure, there were three clear interrelated reasons why the talks failed. First, Palestinians and Israelis couldn't agree on which Palestinian prisoners needed to be released from jail, as part of a deal to sustain talks. Second, the Kerry team couldn't sell either side on a "framework agreement" — a general agreement on principles that would precede a detailed, final deal. Finally, the Palestinian Authority formed an interim consensus government with Hamas, which led Israel to finally quit the talks.

These major disagreements are connected by two underlying threads: there was insufficient will on the Israeli side to make a deal and, on the Palestinian side, there simply wasn't enough trust in the process.

The roots of this failure go back to the very beginning of the peace negotiations, in July 2013. That's when the prisoner issue was cemented as a major part of talks. In brief: the US got the Palestinians to agree to enter negotiations if Israel released 104 Palestinian prisoners jailed before the 1993 Oslo Accords. But the Israelis believed, based on what they heard from the Americans, that they only had to release about 80 of these prisoners.

The disagreement centered on roughly 24 Israeli-Arab prisoners. They had Israeli identity cards, making it much harder for Israel to feel it could prevent them from potentially attacking Israelis again (these prisoners were mostly violent offenders).

From the beginning, the two sides were on different pages, destroying trust where they should have been building it. That continued throughout, often with the Americans appearing responsible for the confusion.

"Mutually inconsistent commitments were made to the Israelis and the Palestinians to get the talks started," Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says. That was the case "with respect to settlements, with respect to prisoners, with respect to the nature of the US role and how much of a US presence there was going to be."

These disagreements helped convince the already-skeptical Palestinians that the Kerry process was a sham. By February of 2014, late in the negotiating process, the Palestinians were fed up.

As Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon report in their excellent history of the Kerry talks, Abbas blew up at Kerry in a February 19 meeting in a Paris hotel. "Why is Abu Mazen [a nickname for Abbas] so angry with me?" Kerry asked lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat the next morning. "I barely said a word, and he started saying, ‘I cannot accept this.'"

This is where Abbas's narrative starts to diverge sharply from the conventional history of the talks. That's when the Kerry team attempted to negotiate a final framework deal — and the talks fell apart in earnest.

On March 17, Abbas met with President Obama in the Oval Office, where he presented Abbas with the American framework plan. It was a Hail Mary: Kerry's negotiating team had concluded that an actual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was out of reach and merely wanted an agreement on general principles — an outline for what a final agreement would look like once the details were worked out.

The full proposal isn't public, but it reportedly included a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an Israeli commitment to admit some Palestinian refugees back into Israel. There are enormously significant concessions. "The occupation will end" under this framework, Obama promised the Palestinians.

According to the American narrative, Abbas simply failed to respond to Obama's offer — effectively killing the chance for a framework deal. "You Palestinians ... can never see the fucking big picture," US National Security Advisor Susan Rice reportedly told Erekat after it became clear the Palestinians weren't biting on Obama's presentation.

Abbas recalls things very differently. In Abbas's version, as translated and summarized by Ashrawi, it's the Americans who walked away.

Abbas claims to have never seen a full text of the deal. Instead, he says, the Americans talked him through bullet points. They read the entire text to Erekat, but never put anything on paper for them to consider fully.

Shortly after the reading, Abbas said, the Americans changed their mind. "The Americans [told us] to forget about the framework," Ashrawi, explained. Instead, they asked Erekat and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj to stick around Washington for a few days.

hanan ashrawi

Hanan Ashrawi. (Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

According to Abbas, the Americans promised to show Erekat and Faraj a new framework — called a "petit framework," because it would be less comprehensive. Martin Indyk, the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, would bring over a petit framework "in a week or two," but "Martin did not come with anything new," Abbas said via Ashrawi. "They did not present [Erekat and Faraj] anything in writing." So the Palestinians, according to Abbas, never saw a deal in writing.

Needless to say, the Palestinian account isn't universally accepted. In another version, the Palestinians weren't waiting on a new text to respond to; they were waiting on Israel to commit to releasing the remaining prisoners before taking any stance on a framework deal. And, indeed, there is no hard proof for the Palestinian narrative. Moreover, there's a logical problem with Abbas's version of events — if he wanted to see a full text of a framework agreement so badly, why not push the Americans on it? "The fact is, they didn't make any attempt to negotiate the framework," Thrall says, "which was extremely frustrating to the US and Israel."

Regardless, after the failure of the framework agreement, the talks were basically dead. Kerry tried to merely extend the talks in April, but the two sides couldn't reach a bargain. On April 23, Abbas's Fatah party agreed to create a non-partisan, interim reconciliation government with Hamas, the radical Islamist faction that controls Gaza. Israel, refusing to negotiate with a Hamas-linked government, predictably walked out.

The Palestinians are giving up on US leadership

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Palestinian Islamic Jihad supporters protest the Kerry peace talks in January 2014. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

The Palestinian narrative points to a broader problem underlying the peace talks: the Palestinian leadership has all but lost faith in the American-led peace process — causing them to instead pursue a strategy that's dramatically different than anything they've attempted in the past 20 years.

The Palestinians have been considering such a move since at least 2008. That year, a group of senior Palestinian political and civil society leaders met to write a report on the peace process under the auspices of the Palestine Strategy Group (PSG) — an organization supported by the Oxford Research Group and the Norwegian government. The report argued that Israel had no incentive to make serious moves for peace without more pressure from the Palestinians and the world. They proposed a pressure campaign, both at home and abroad, designed to raise the political costs of the Israeli occupation.

Within roughly a year, the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee began exploring an idea in line with the PSG approach, asking the UN to formally recognize Palestine as a state. The idea is that Palestinian UN membership would embarrass Israel internationally, and that action would serve as a gateway to broader international recognition of Palestinian rights. Abbas, though, was skeptical. He'd been a diplomat for years and had long pursued a strategy of working, and negotiating, directly with Israel. This sort of unilateral action was not in his political DNA.

But 2009 was a rough year for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Benjamin Netanyahu, a well-known peace skeptic, became Israel's prime minister. President Obama came into office pushing for peace talks and, as an interim step, an Israeli freeze on new settler homes in the West Bank. Obama got a partial freeze for ten months, but talks didn't happen till the 9th month and never went anywhere. The effort fell apart.

By 2010, Abbas was openly hostile to talks, which was widely seen as an indication that the larger Palestinian establishment was fed up, as well.

"Abbas is among the last among his people to arrive at the point he has reached," a 2010 International Crisis Group report on the emerging new Palestinian strategy read. "He is the restrained and belated expression of a visceral and deep popular disillusionment with the peace process as they have grown to know it."

This frustration gave rise to Palestine 194: the Palestinian Authority's campaign to become the 194th internationally recognized state in the United Nations. A victory at the UN would be a major sign that Israel could not maintain the occupation scot-free from international condemnation and maybe even punishment. By November 2012, Palestine had been granted non-member observer status by the UN General Assembly. That didn't mean a lot in practical terms: a Security Council vote is necessary for Palestine to become a true member state. And the US has a veto there.

But both the Americans and the Israelis saw this strategy as a means of undermining the Oslo negotiation process — thus setting back the prospects for peace. That's part of how Kerry sold his negotiations to the Israelis back in July 2013: going to the table, even if it required concessions like the prisoner release, would sideline the 194 campaign. "The talks themselves were sold to the Israelis as a means of halting these international steps that were already underway," Thrall says.

When the Kerry talks collapsed, the Palestinian team came away feeling that the US was to blame, that it was ultimately incapable or unwilling to deliver a peace deal, and had failed them for the final time.

"We have nothing!" Ashrawi said during our meeting in her office this winter. "We don't have settlements, we don't have prisoners, we don't have checkpoints, so what can we get in return?"

"The only thing we have is going to the UN," she concluded. Which, of course, they did. On the second-to-last day of 2014, the UN Security Council rejected a Jordanian resolution that would have required an end to the Israeli occupation within three years. This would have set an international legal requirement for Israel to change its policy — but it failed to get the required nine Security Council votes, and the US voted against, to boot.

Around the same time, the Palestinians announced that they would accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court — beginning the process of Palestine joining the court. This could, in theory, lead to Israeli officials being charged in the Hague on grounds that the West Bank settlements are illegal or that Israel committed war crimes during the 2014 Gaza war. Either case is very unlikely in the foreseeable future, but even the remote possibility worries Israeli policymakers.

There are more Palestinian international options. They could, for example, intensify efforts to get European governments to unilaterally recognize Palestine as a state. Whatever they choose to do next, it'll be the result of the perceived failure of the negotiations.

The Palestinians "went to the talks not believing them and feeling that they were dragged into them," according to Thrall. "Afterward, I think that it was not only that they were frustrated with the United States, but they had much more of a sense that the US was incompetent."

"I think [Abbas's faith in America] died during the Kerry talks," Grant Rumley, a research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says. "He's given up on Obama — on this government's ability to get concessions out of Israel."

This sense of frustration extends well beyond the Palestinian leadership. Between the poverty and brutality of Hamas's Gaza and the Palestinian Authority's seeming inability to address the daily indignities of life under Israeli occupation, Palestinians have grown deeply cynical about the conflict's status quo. That very much includes the American-led peace process.

"We as a community have come to terms with Israel not accepting the international standard, a two-state solution," Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman and activist, told me.

The Americans must "be reminded that they need to present themselves differently from the Israeli position," Omar Shaban, Director of the Gaza-based think tank PalThink, said. "Israel is our enemy ... why do you put yourselves in the same shoes if you are not our enemy?"

December 2014 poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 70 percent of Palestinians saw the chances of achieving statehood, a crucial component of any two-state peace deal, in the next five years as "slim to non-existent." Large majorities endorsed some kind of unilateral action "in the absence of viable negotiations." This includes joining more international organizations (80 percent), joining the International Criminal Court (73 percent), and even a return to "armed intifada" (56 percent).

From the leadership to civil society to the street, the message from the Palestinians is clear: we are done with the American peace process.

A new era of the Israel-Palestine conflict

Palestinians flag prisoner release

Palestinians wave the national flag. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

There's a cliche, generally passed off as bold contrarianism, that you hear from Israelis and Palestinians a lot nowadays: "we're in a post-Oslo era." One of the things meant by "post-Oslo" is that the Oslo Accords' strategy for solving the conflict — direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, mediated by the United States — is no longer viable.

Palestinian unilateralism is a mainstay of the supposed post-Oslo reality. Because the US can't broker an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the Palestinians need to figure out another way to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation. That means appealing to international law and global public opinion through mechanisms like the (failed) Security Council bid and (initially successful) bid to begin joining the International Criminal Court.

It's not clear, though, what this radically different Palestinian approach means for the future of the two-state solution. Virtually any Palestinian endgame, however they get there, ultimately requires some kind of agreement with Israel. A UN Security Council resolution, international condemnation and boycotts, or even an indictment of Israeli officials at the ICC won't by themselves cause Israel to pack up and leave the West Bank.

The critical test of the Palestinian strategy is how it affects Israeli and American leaders, as well as the public in both countries. The basic theory behind the Palestinian international strategy is that there's an asymmetry in comfort between Israel and the Palestinians: while Israelis aren't hurt much by the status quo, the occupation makes Palestinian lives miserable. If Israelis see that there are costs to letting the conflict drift, the argument goes, they'll be more interested in getting to peace and thus more willing to make concessions. Either the Israelis will decide to give ground under the weight of international opinion, or the Americans — frustrated with its obstinate allies — will force them to.

But this could also backfire, strengthening anti-peace politics in Israel and weakening Israeli peace advocates — who are warning of exactly that. Israeli peace skeptics feed on two major perceptions, both of which could be fueled further by a unilateral Palestinian effort: one, that Israelis are besieged internationally and, two, that the Palestinians aren't interested in a negotiated settlement. Instead of putting pressure on Israel to change, Palestinian unilateralism could end up empowering its least-favorite Israelis.

"In a world in which the Israelis and Palestinians don't know each other very well," one senior US diplomat told me, "they're terrible analysts of each other."

And that's why the coming period in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so important. As the Palestinian government tests its new strategy, the Palestinians will gauge how effective it is. If it doesn't work, will they keep at it, or will they go back to old, US-mediated peace talks? Will they back down if the US is able to re-start peace talks?

Expert opinion on this is divided. Some see the Palestinian unilateral campaign as merely a compliment to their negotiating strategy. "They can express public skepticism 'til the cows come home," the ICG's Thrall says, "but the fact of the matter is that their strategy hasn't changed."

"I definitely think there is a huge sense of frustration among the PLO executive committee," he allows. But Abbas "will always be the die-hard, last believer in the Middle East peace process."

Others, however, see a deeper shift in the Palestinian strategy: one that aims at eventually replacing US-brokered talks with a more international approach. "February [2014] is the month where the peace process died," research analyst Rumley says. The Palestinians now "want the international community to get involved on a scale that dwarfs the US."

Rumley thinks the Palestinians "are trying to create diplomatic momentum so that the international community gets more involved. And you're seeing the fruits of their labors: you're seeing reports in the French press that [France] might get to the point where [they] host a peace conference in Paris. That is exactly what the Palestinians want."

It's not clear that the Palestinians know which interpretation is true, either.

The defining characteristic of the new Palestinian status quo is uncertainty. The American-led talks have dominated the Israeli-Palestinian peace process so long as to make the two practically synonymous. Palestinian officials are happy to talk about America's failures, but don't really have a good handle on how the conflict ends without a US role.

All we know for sure is that Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian leadership is angry. Angry about the peace talks, angry at the Americans, and, most of all, furious with the Israelis. And that anger makes the future of Palestinian politics deeply unpredictable.

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