A not-so-done deal: Israelis and Palestinians trade barbs over peace 'agreement'

JERUSALEM — US Secretary of State John Kerry, a former Massachusetts senator, worked with flinty New England restraint to achieve what many thought impossible: the announcement of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

That was Friday. 

By Monday, the cacophonous Middle East seemed about to blot out his hard won feat. Headlines blasted that Israelis were skeptical and Palestinians wary of his proposal.

Worse, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said flat out that no agreement had been finalized. 

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki scrambled to rectify the growing impression that Kerry may have misunderstood the Palestinians, unequivocally telling reporters that “an agreement between parties to resume final status negotiations” had been achieved.

More from GlobalPost: Kerry announces agreement to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

"She said that the contradictory nature of statements by Palestinian sources meant that some of the reports were necessarily false," reported the Israeli online newspaper, Times of Israel.

What's at stake are the final borders of a future Palestinian state, control over the contested city of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the status of several million Palestinian refugees. 

The Israeli government seemed on the verge of implosion, with one senior minister threatening to vote against the national budget — and thus threaten the survival of the fragile coalition — if he didn't receive the assurance that any future peace agreement would be subject to a referendum.

In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party, which is splintering into a small, center-right core and a larger, Tea Party-like extreme right, seemed about to bolt the coalition. 

Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said Sunday he supports the renewal of talks but is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. 

What had the weekend wrought?

"We've been in this movie, the renewal of talks — what? — 22 or 23 times since the early nineties," said Ronni Shaked, a political analyst at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute.

"But maybe this time," he added, "maybe the Americans are more serious. And maybe the Israeli public has better understood that it is for our benefit. And the Palestinians, maybe they understood that they've just wasted the past five years, with no negotiations and 60,000 or 70,000 more settlers."


For many longtime observers of the Israeli-Palestinian waltz, the weekend's eruption looked like déjà vu all over again.

More from GlobalPost: Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: What does each side want? 

The analysts approached for this article labored to recall an instance when the resumption of peace negotiations had not been greeted by the threat to topple the government, from the Israeli right, and by a flurry of contradictory statements, from the Palestinian leadership.

"On both sides, we already know this story well," Shaked said. "All the disappointments and the frustrations."

"There's a lack of confidence on both sides," said veteran Palestinian peace negotiator Ziad Abu Zayyad, when asked about the muddle. "All the disappointments and frustrations from the past… The Palestinians don't believe Netanyahu has changed, especially when they don't hear anything about a settlement freeze, so they have doubts."

"I'm telling you, each time it’s the same, and nothing happens," he too, sighed.

When asked if Kerry may have overstated the advances made toward negotiations, Abu Zayyad initially said "I think Kerry exaggerated, and apparently wanted to leave with the impression that he succeeded and something is happening."

But then he stopped, and said the answer to the question was to be found in an old parable about diplomats.

“When a diplomat says maybe, he means no; and when he says yes, it means maybe. And if he says no, he's not a diplomat," Abu Zayyad said. "And when a lady says no, she means maybe; and if she says maybe, she means yes; and if she says yes, she is not a lady.”

But, even here, not everyone is as jaded with the routine of resuming peace talks.

Hillel Schenker, a veteran of the Israeli peace movement and co-editor, with Abu Zayyad, of the Palestine-Israel Journal, says that "despite everything, this is an opportunity."

"The Arab League also says it’s the last chance," he said. "So it is not just another round of the many rounds in the same river — because the rivers have changed, reality has changed around us. We are at a very particular juncture in Israeli and Palestinian history."

"It is entirely possible that this is the last realistic opportunity to move towards a two state solution while it is still a viable option."