While the world watches Kiev, the Middle East peace process is once again on the verge of collapse. After almost nine months of feverish efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, we’re now less than a month away from the deadline for an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. The prospects of reaching any form of agreement in late April are grim, and the current standoff over this weekend’s aborted prisoner release threatens to definitively end this round of talks.
Twenty-six Palestinians prisoners, all of whom had been convicted before the 1993 Oslo Accords, were slated to be released this past Saturday as part of the original agreement reached last July. Now, under increasing pressure from hardline members of the Likud and Jewish Home parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians commit to extending the peace process beyond April before he will release this final group of prisoners. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has called these tactics “blackmail” and is unequivocal in his refusal to link the prisoner release to an extension of talks. So we’re back at impasse – an all-too-familiar state for Israeli-Arab peace talks. The indefatigable John Kerry has taken an emergency trip to the region to try to salvage the process; there’s now talk of a broader deal in which the Americans would incentivize Israeli cooperation by releasing Jonathan Pollard, a convicted spy whose actions and long US prison sentence have won him sympathy among Israelis.