Thursday of last week, Israel denied it would release 26 prisoners, and the fate of the Israel-Palestine peace talks hung by a thread. Early this week, the risk level subsided for a few days: it did not appear that Israel would further delay the prisoner release, and thus negotiations would continue perhaps until April 29 in this period of worldwide tactical diplomacy. Thursday of this week, the prisoner release was on hold again.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority both display the tools of their controlled, precise offenses, polished tactical diplomacy— without shooting, except one Israeli strike force against a Hamas terrorist in the West Bank on March 23. The US and Russia pull strings to the best of their ability to trigger some affect somewhere else. In these particular West Bank negotiations, the mode of micro-strategy appears to follow patterns familiar to experts. Both sides can makes moves and counter moves on overdetermined topics: prisoner releases, stages of advancement of settlement construction, terms of statehood, even on occasion deploy organized or isolated violence. The PA can now go into its UN strategy: to take up that part of their game plan. However, in this new iteration of crisis, in the presence of more exposed media-rich information exchange, the negotiations about prisoner release have great symbolic power. Each prisoner recalls for Israelis an act of violence.
The revelations of Mark Snowdon’s documents, notably Germany’s pesky NSA problem, beg questions for those attuned to shifting structural patterns beneath a very labile surface of perception. The patterns of newly revealed insights include: How does corruption work in the newly configured Eastern Europe? How do state intelligence agencies routinely collect lots and lots of information? After all, as Michael Hayden said of the NSA in his interview with Der Spiegel: “we are very good at our job.” The EU and the US are very a differently informed public than they were, say, as they blithely watched the last week of the Sochi Olympics, as Russia started to move against Crimea.
The multiple fronts of US State Department diplomacy include three where there has been bloodshed in the last three weeks. Networks of decision makers directed violence against Ukrainians, against Israelis in the Golan Heights on March 18, against Syrians along that border March 19, and against an alleged Hamas terrorist and two companions, on March 23.
This a new configuration of the world media battle space. Today, on the second Friday: after successive Thursdays of watching this negotiations game played in the Ramallah-Jerusalem sector, observers might notice the repeat of an Israeli set-play from last week, in regard to prisoner release. Both Netanyahu and Abbas seem to bring their best tactical diplomacy game, day after day. Those who speak in sports metaphor would perhaps remark on the “run-out every ball” intensity of play. Meanwhile others presumably scratch their heads.
Risks shift from day-to-day, over the last two weeks. From Moscow to the Kodiak Archipelago in Alaska, this is already well advanced into a full-blown face-off in cyberspace. The rules of play for the EU and the US, as for Russia and China, seem fluid. The risks along the Green Line can perhaps be conceptualized as an image of a network map of the region, seen from a satellite showing the paths of information packets flowing in the Middle East. In Israel risks level appeared to subside this week: it did not appear that Israel would further delay the prisoner release, the tactical diplomacy would take a break and thus negotiations would continue. Plus the betting odds would improve for the April 29 “everybody-can-be-a-winner” finale.
For now Israel and the PA are entering a new round with new rules, with the UN as a new sector of the sphere of play. They test each other by advancing tactics that disobey the frameworks of the talks. For both sides these hyper-focused details of negotiation come out of and speak to the worldwide climate of negotiations. Israel, the Palestinians, the US, the Russians and China are all testing their “full court press” tactics. The PA responded to the news on prisoners by pushing forward into the new phase of competition on this other battlefield, and they seek to push their advantage with international conventions to the UN.
The voices of negotiators have given pregnant statements. For example last Saturday, PA Prisoner Affairs Minister Issa Karaka called the prisoner release “a test of Israel’s preparedness for a just peace with the Palestinian people.” Early this week Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni spoke to a particular version of the list of these 26. She described it as a Palestinian “wish list,” of who they wanted released; with what that might entail. An equally tight formulation by Livni suggested: There was “never any automatic commitment to release prisoners” without the peace deal. The Israeli gambit delays prisoner release, risks the continuity of negotiations and puts its faith in tactical diplomacy.
Commentary by Lawrence Shapiro