There is a word in Hebrew that marvelously describes what Benjamin Netanyahu has turned both the Palestinian Authority and the
Obama Administration into. That word is “frier.” Not as in a vat of oil to make chips, but as in what would be most closely translated as “sucker,” a person who is easily scammed, who buys the Brooklyn Bridge with their life savings.
The deal which, according to the New York Times, US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to sell today to the Palestinians exemplifies everything that is wrong with the American-brokered Oslo process. The deal itself was hammered out only between Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It reflects the absence of the Palestinians in the discussions, because it offers them nothing but the opportunity to capitulate again to American and Israeli power.
Under the terms of the deal, the United States would release Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish American who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for Israel. Pollard has been a cause celebre for the right wings of both the American-Jewish and Israeli communities for years, but no president has ever seriously considered releasing him before. Israel would, essentially, concede nothing in exchange.
The Israelis would agree to “show restraint” in expanding settlements in the West Bank. That is a vague and meaningless wording which, given the amount of construction Israel has undertaken when they’ve actually agreed to what they call a “freeze” cannot possibly have any real impact.
But Israel will get the added benefit of calling this meaningless gesture a “freeze” and the required audiences – Americans, Israelis and the European right wing that hates Jews but loves Israel – will believe it absolutely. The commitment even explicitly excludes the Jerusalem area, which Israel defines very broadly. One can expect that the price for even a single unit being held up in a remote settlement, will be massive acceleration of building in Jerusalem.
Israel would also agree to release more Palestinian prisoners. That sounds like a concession, but in reality Israel has already committed to releasing another 26 Palestinian prisoners who have been in Israeli jails for over twenty years. The rest of the prisoners whose release is being contemplated are common criminals, who the Palestinians have no interest in seeing freed.
So Israel gives up nothing but wins a major right wing victory. But they get more than that. They get a Palestinian commitment to forego the option of taking their case to the United Nations or The Hague or any of the other bodies, especially the International Criminal Court, where they might actually pursue their case with some sort of power behind them, as is their right. They get a Palestinian agreement to tolerate further settlement expansion, and a commitment to continue the US-brokered talks, which have gained nothing and only harmed the Palestinians, through 2015.
All this Israel gets for nothing. It was precisely for deals like this that the word frier was invented. The lesser frier in this case is the Obama Administration. Kerry is basically paying a very high price for a microscopic return: the continuation of talks. But, as I explain in much more detail here, because of the beating Barack Obama is taking over Russia and the Ukraine, simply avoiding another failure at this moment makes that continuation temporarily more valuable. The price is high, and will include some serious consternation in the US’ own national security and intelligence communities over Pollard’s release, as well as a strong sense in diplomatic circles that Netanyahu has once again prevailed quite decisively over Obama and Kerry. But an administration desperate to avoid an explicit foreign policy failure apparently is at least considering that the price may be worth paying.
But the real frier here is Mahmoud Abbas. The fact that Kerry can even make this proposal to the Palestinians shows how weak Abbas has shown himself to be. That the Palestinians, one of the two direct parties to this conflict, were not even consulted about the deal that Netanyahu and Kerry cooked up also demonstrates what a dead end the process is for the people living under occupation, whom the international system is supposed to protect.
Will Abbas accept these terms? Will he go back on his vows of last year, when he promised his people that he would not engage in talks for the sake of talks, when he declared that he would not go past the deadline of April 29, which Kerry himself set? Will he actually agree to tolerate more settlement expansion, forego all other avenues to which the Palestinians are legally entitled, and agree to what amounts to another twenty months of talks that are clearly doomed?
That’s what makes Abbas a frier. Maybe this deal is so bad that he won’t agree to it. Maybe the Times report is inaccurate and it’s not as bad as it seems to be. Maybe the PLO Executive Committee will reject the deal even if Abbas accepts it. But if none of those things are true, chances are still at least fair that Abbas will accept the deal. True, he may realize that this deal is so bad that it could be the final outrage for his regime among the Palestinian people. But betting on Abbas standing up to the United States has always been a long shot and remains so.
At this writing, the Palestinians have announced that they are applying to join fifteen United Nations institutions, and that Jonathan Pollard had waived a parole hearing that had been scheduled for this week. This is a pretty strong indication that the deal will go through. Abbas will make his applications and join some UN organizations while committing not to act in those bodies until the talks fail. He will hope that this will buy him sufficient political cover to concede to American and Israeli diktats. And Pollard obviously expects his parole hearing to be moot.
The talks hold no potential for the Palestinians. The Americans clearly cannot be expected to press for progress when they have to use some of their biggest chips just to keep a failed process going. Israel has no incentive to make concessions when they can score such significant victories as they have today for virtually no cost at all. And yet Abbas concedes.
You couldn’t design a better demonstration of why American-brokered talks are hopeless. Nor why Netanyahu faces no challenge to his anti-peace stance; why should he, when it keeps getting Israel what it wants? Most of all, it can be no clearer that Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority cannot represent the interests of the Palestinian people. Agreeing to this process keeps Abbas’ political heart beating, but at the cost of the interests of his people.
Israel continues to swallow up the West Bank. The facts on the ground keep changing in ways that only make a diplomatic solution from any quarter less likely. And what we have seen today just makes it clear that these conditions will continue to grow apace. That’s what happens when there’s one smart guy in a room full of friers.
Addendum: It has now been reported that after Abbas made his UN applications, John Kerry left the region. Clearly, he is expressing American displeasure, but it is unlikely that this is the end of the story. The Palestinians hoped that the move would encourage Kerry to come up with a better offer. It is worth noting that earlier in the day, Israel issued tenders for 708 new housing units in Gilo, a hot button settlement in East Jerusalem. Somehow, this was not seen as overly provocative but the Palestinians acting in a manner they are fully entitled to act in was. Another example of all that is wrong here.