WASHINGTON – Now that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have screeched to a halt, U.S. officials are apportioning blame, and a big share is going to Israel.
In an interview with Nahum Barnea, a veteran diplomatic affairs writer for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, anonymous members of the U.S. negotiating team said Israel’s settlement activity was a principal cause of the breakdown in talks last month.
“There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements,” one of the officials said. “The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state.”
It seemed clear that a U.S. pullback from the process was in the works now, said Aaron David Miller, a U.S. Middle East peace negotiator under Democratic and Republican presidents and currently a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, who said he had read through the Barnea interview four times over the weekend.
There had appeared for the last few weeks to be internal debate within the Obama administration over whether to keep trying to get the sides back to the table despite increasingly acrimonious exchanges between Israel and the Palestinians, or whether to take a break.
President Obama in an April 25 press conference seemed ready to take a break. “There may come a point at which there just needs to be a pause and both sides need to look at the alternatives,” he said.
Marie Harf, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, on Monday for the first time confirmed to reporters that the talks were “suspended” when she was asked about the Barnea article. Israel had formally suspended the talks on April 24, but Secretary of State John Kerry had kept his team in the region in hopes of getting the sides back together.
Martin Indyk, the top U.S. negotiator, has “returned to the United States for consultations with the secretary and the White House,” Harf said. “As we assess the next steps in the U.S. efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, it is premature, quite frankly, to speculate on what those steps will be or what will happen.”
She denied reports that Kerry was disbanding his negotiations team and that Indyk was returning to the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, which he led before rejoining government last year.
Blaming Israel would be counterproductive, Miller said.
“The notion that the peace process collapsed because of settlement activity is a willful distortion of reality,” he said.
The sides, Miller added, were simply too far apart on the core issues, including borders, the status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.
Einat Wilf, a former Knesset member who was in the Labor Party and then the breakaway Independence faction, said the Americans were recognizing the reality that they could not force the process.
“If the Israelis and Palestinians are not reaching an agreement, it is not because they need an enthusiastic mediator,” said Wilf, who was visiting with Washington. “They are not incapable children. If they are not making decisions, it is because they are assessing their alternatives.”
Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, was careful to blame both sides in her briefing Monday for reporters, noting the Palestinians’ application to join international conventions and their unity talks with Hamas.