On a Tuesday in Amman some three months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry invited Palestinian and Israeli “senior negotiating teams to Washington to formally resume direct final status negotiations.” Then, it seemed like a breakthrough: Israelis and Palestinians finally sitting down, committing to nine months of negotiations dotted with prisoner releases to maintain trust. At the time, Netanyahu called the talks “vital” and a “strategic interest."
Some were hopeful that this was a step toward peace. But what we didn’t know then was that Israel’s seat at the negotiating table came with a dangerous proviso, a deal struck between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and far-right coalition partner Naftali Bennett: it was agreed that settlement expansion would be the price for each prisoner release. In other words, built into the negotiations nominally aimed at two states was a condition that made two states less likely. It has become distinctly clear that the Israeli right’s singular goal is to make a two-state framework impossible.
On Wednesday, the prisoners-for-settlements deal went into action again. Not long after 26 Palestinian prisoners were released, the Israeli government announced the construction of approximately 5,000 new units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Though Israelis caught wind of the Netanyahu-Bennett deal through a leak to the newspaper Maariv at the end of July, a Channel 2 report yesterday revealed the sordid details. Earlier on that ill-fated Tuesday in July, Netanyahu wanted to make sure that when Kerry announced renewed negotiations, Bennett wouldn’t withdraw from the government coalition. In a closed-door meeting, Bennett was told that while Israel would not agree to preconditions like a settlement freeze or the recognition of the ’67 lines, it would agree to a Palestinian prisoner release. Bennett agreed at the time, but demanded gratuity: “I will swallow it if it’s tied to building,” he said. Netanyahu took his answer to Kerry. On the phone, he explained that he had managed to get an “agreement with [coalition] partners, but it will require building every time there’s a [prisoner] release,” adding, “it’ll make it easier for them.”
Kerry acquiesced. This made Kerry knowingly party to a negotiations deal that actively moves away from a future Palestinian state. Like so many involved in the “peace process,” Kerry fell victim to negotiation fetishism: an attachment to the means—direct negotiations—disconnected from its desired end—two states.
This prisoners-for-settlements story made headlines in Israel as Bennett protested the prisoner release. Bennett did call Netanyahu back after the Prime Minister had made the prisoner release-for-settlement expansion deal with Kerry. He tried to revoke his support for the deal, to no avail. Netanyahu held him to it. And when the Jewish Home Party’s office released a statement denying everything—“[n]ever happened. The Minister never agreed to free terrorists, he announced that he would vote against the government decision, and he stood by his word. Any statement otherwise is false”—after the Channel 2 expose, Bennett cannot but reek of hypocrisy.
Either way, the deal has held. Bennett has remained in the coalition, and settlement building has steadily risen. By early August, some 1,096 units in 11 settlements had been built, many of them “isolated.” And this week, the government approved some 2,300 settlement units. 1,500 new apartments, a park and tourism center are to be built in the “particularly contentious settlement in East Jerusalem” of Ramat Shlomo, joined by another 1,700 units in the West bank. All but 800 of these units will be outside of the swappable settlement blocs. Many will be located far from the Green Line in “isolated settlements” like Talmon, Ofra, Shilo, Beit El, Bracha and Almog.
The future of the settlements is what will make or break a two-state outcome. The present condition—allowing for “processing” while aiding and abetting Bennett’s trampling on a two-state outcome—shows that the right knows this very well. To arrive at a tenable two-state framework, Bennett and Netanyahu will need more than the slap on the wrist offered by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki's weak statement that “We do not consider continued settlement activity or East Jerusalem construction to be steps that create a positive environment for negotiations.” An important first step to getting to two states is to shift focus away from negotiations themselves to what they can achieve. The aim should be to provide the conditions under which a Palestinian state can function autonomously. It should be about Palestine, not process.