Bibi Netanyahu has proven himself masterful at drowning every U.S. effort at brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in minutiae. Then, when he can’t manipulate matters any further and has derived maximum benefit for Israel’s negotiating position, as he did during John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, he simply says No and walks away. With the incoming Trump administration, it’s been difficult so far to see what the outline would look like. But with Jared Kushner’s just concluded second round of talks with the two sides, that’s becoming much clearer.
Whenever it looks like there could be movement or success in negotiations, Netanyahu moves the goal posts by devising new conditions that hadn’t been raised previously. He did that a few years ago when suddenly it became a matter of existential importance that the putative Palestinian state recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This sleight of hand worked beautifully, as Bibi knew that no self-respecting Palestinian nationalist could do so without selling out their own values.
Now, Netanyahu has created a new stratagem to gum up the works: Palestinians are supposedly supporting and inciting terror against Israel by paying benefits to the families of their prisoners in Israeli jails. To the right-wing Israeli government, this is like paying blood money on behalf of terrorist murderers.
To Palestinians, the matter looks totally different: first of all, these prisoners are breadwinners for their families. If they are in an Israeli prison, their children and wives are going hungry back home. Financial support is critical for their families to survive. Second, Israeli military justice is not known for its fairness or probity. There is no guarantee that many of these prisoners are guilty of whatever they were charged with. Which means that many of the detainees may not be guilty at all, or may be guilty of much lesser offenses than the ones they were charged with. Third, even if they are guilty, Palestinians view these men as heroes on behalf of the Palestinian nation. They fought on behalf of freedom and against the unending Israeli Occupation. After five decades of such oppression, violent resistance begins to look like the only option for some; and the Palestinian street embraces their sacrifice.
Haaretz contributor, Odeh Bisharat, also noted a profound hypocrisy in this Israeli demand: there are many Israeli terrorists in Israeli prisons for killing Palestinians (such imprisonment happened back in the days when Israel prosecuted and imprisoned such people; now this no longer happens). The Israeli state continues paying benefits to these individuals and their families despite the heinous crimes for which they’ve been convicted. It also refuses to pay compensation to Palestinian families who are terror victims (at the hands of Israeli Jews), despite the fact that they should be entitled to it.
Not to mention that there have been hundreds of cases in which Israeli Border Police and IDF soldiers have murdered Palestinians in cold blood. If any of the killers had gone to prison (the number who have is miniscule) none of their benefits would’ve been cut either. But as I wrote, they weren’t even sent to prison. In many cases, they were promoted for their “bravery.”
All this represents a two-faced double standard: Israeli security forces may do whatever they wish to protect their own interests including killing Palestinians. Those few who are held accountable receive no financial penalty. Yet Palestinians are singled out for blame. It’s shameful hypocrisy.
Returning to Bibi’s overall negotiating strategy: it’s quite brilliant to get the talks bogged down over an issue on which he knows the Palestinians can’t compromise. Any Palestinian leader who betrayed the interests of the Israel-jailed prisoners would be laughed out of power. These detainees are heroes in the Palestinian street. They cannot be tossed away, and certainly not at Israel’s behest.
Further, in getting Kushner to carry this demand on his behalf to Abbas, Netanyahu has made clear that he holds all the cards and the Palestinians hold none. The Trump administration has, as many of us suspected, become captive to the Israeli position. It sees the Palestinians as weak and capable of being browbeaten into submission. It hopes that the Saudis will join them in this effort by either buying Palestinian obeisance or pressuring them to do so.
In fact, recently a former Arab prime minister predicted that the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed ibn Salman, has an overarching ambition to create a grand alliance with Israel that would involve his country and the Sunni states with which he’s allied recognizing Israel. This report is from Middle East Eye:
Several months ago, I attended a gathering of influential figures being hosted by a senior personality in the intelligence community of one of the Gulf countries. It was past midnight, and the discussion had gone on for some time, the topic being the political developments in the region, specifically unfolding events in Saudi Arabia.
There were stories coming from Riyadh about a shift in fault lines, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s wings were being clipped and his powers reduced, while his deputy Mohammed bin Salman was becoming more and more influential by the day.
…Among those present was the former prime minister of a non-Arab country. Our host asked him his views about the rumblings coming out of Riyadh…The former statesman’s answer had many in the room shocked, even doubtful. But so far everything he said has turned out to be true.
He spoke of a young prince hell-bent on becoming king, and outlined some of the conditions that would make the plot succeed. A scheme that was hatched by the rulers of the United Arab Emirates who were desperate to regain their foothold in the Saudi Royal Court after they had so swiftly lost it following the death of King Abdullah in 2014.
‘This guy is willing to betray his own father for the crown,’ responded the former prime minister. A key element to the plot was gaining the blessings of US intelligence and security institutions, but to do that, the Emiratis and their ambitious young ally would have to convince the Americans to ditch Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, a man nicknamed as “Washington’s favourite Saudi”.
“For the Americans to abandon Mohammed bin Nayef and choose this young prince, he has to offer them something no one has managed or even dared to offer before,” said the former prime minister.
Not being the cryptic type, he then proceeded to spell it out: “He has to recognise Israel. If he does that then the Americans will support him, they’ll even crown him themselves.”
“There’s no way he’d be willing to do that, plus Saudi society wouldn’t accept it, they’d view it as betrayal,” I said.
“This guy is willing to betray his own father for the crown,” responded the former prime minister.
From recent media reports, Salman seems well on his way to creating a grand alliance with Israel–and possibly starting a new regional war (with Iran) in the process.
Reports say that PA rump-President Abbas was incensed at Kushner’s demands that the Palestinians cease funding for 600 prisoners who have Israeli “blood on their hands.” Abbas rejected the demand out of hand and expressed anger that the U.S. negotiator had fully embraced Israeli positions and granted short shrift to Palestinian ones.
This is precisely what I expected to happen: virtually every major player from U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman to Kushner to Jason Greenblatt are captives of the Israeli Lobby. They are enthusiastic funders and supporters of the Israeli settlement venture. They simply cannot be honest brokers. They cannot achieve an agreement with Palestinians. Perhaps that’s why they’re trying so hard to co-opt the Saudis. As fellow Arabs, the Trumpists believe they can bring the Palestinians into line.
This strategy is doomed to failure. The Saudis are not only not miracle-workers, whenever they’ve attempted to assert their dominance or power in the region they’ve failed miserably. They’ve squandered thousands of lives and billions in treasure in a disastrous intervention in Yemen. They’ve funneled billions to ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria, as they’re being trounced by Assad’s forces and the regime’s allies, Russia and Iran. Why does anyone believe the Saudis can deliver anything to anyone?