Michael Herzog is a serious fellow. A retired brigadier general in the IDF intelligence corps. The son of Chaim Herzog, commander of the IDF intelligence corps and eventually President of Israel; nephew of Yakov Herzog, a top-tier official in the 1960s who died young after besting Arnold Toynbee in a discussion about Jews and their place in history; also a nephew of Abba Eban, Israel's legendary foreign minster in the 1960s. He's the older brother of Yitzchak Herzog, the current leader of the Labor Party. He's been involved in just about all the rounds of Israeli-Arab negotiations over the past 20 years or so, in one capacity or another. So when he describes the most recent failed attempt to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of which he was part in an advisory role, he's worth listening to. He knows Israel from its center to its edge; he's been observing Israel's Arab neighbors for 50 years; and he has as much experience of dealing with putative American peace-makers as any Israeli.
John Kerry's chapter of the decades-old off-on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations garnered much less attention than some of its predecessors, such as the Camp David negotiations run by Bill Clinton in 2000 or their Hail-Mary-pass edition in December 2000, or even the Olmert-Abbas negotiations of 2008. Most observers on all sides seem to have resigned themselves, some more and others less, to the futility of such attempts, and anyway the minutiae involved doesn't easily lend itself to Twitter-style reporting. Yet in Herzog's telling, Kerry's chapter was as serious as its forerunners, and its failure is as instructive.
Herzog doesn't tell us who offered exactly what and what was extracted in return. Rather, he tells about the dynamics. They're not that surprising to seasoned observers of the genre, but they're instructive; I think they're important.
The Palestinians first. It's well known they regard their acceptance of Israel in its borders of 1967 to be their final offer; they've made all the compromises required for peace, and the purpose of negotiations is to bring them sovereignty in the entire West Bank,Gaza, East Jerusalem, along with a resolution to their Right of Return, and Historical Justice. It's the historical justice which you've got to keep in mind, as according to Herzog, in the Kerry negotiations as in all earlier attempts the Palestinians put immense weight on being accorded justice as they define it.
The demand for justice is unusual in the annals of international peace negotiations, which usually focus on more concrete issues; also, negotiations generally involve give-and-take; when one side insists it has finished giving and is at the table only to take, negotiations won't succeed.
The story Herzog tells about Netanyahu is a bit surprising, though not earth-shattering. As he tells it, Netanyahu actually demonstrated seriousness and eventually also flexibility towards reaching an agreement. Herzog quotes him once as telling Kerry that a compromise must hurt both sides, and he was willing to accept hurt. The Palestinians, not: see above. Herzog cites American negotiators who agree that Netanyahu eventually showed significant flexibility.
Which raises an interesting question. The Netanyahu and Obama governments didn't get along so well, as we all noticed, even up until the final days of Obama's administration. If Netanyahu had actually moved significantly towards where Kerry wanted him, what was that final bitter speech in the State Department in January 2017 all about? I pose this question for future investigation. Something doesn't add up.
The pattern of end-run Israeli flexibility and Palestinian recalcitrance is not new ; it has actually been the norm for at least 16 years. Which makes the American part of the story so odd. Herzog credits Kerry with investing endless time in the negotiations, including daily conference calls from whatever country he might be in. Man, was he serious about this! Serious, but inept. He missed details of major destructive power, such as not noticing the distinction between an Israeli willingness to free convicted Palestinian murders from prison, to the Palestinian insistence they be sent back to their hometowns, where the Israelis expected them to stir up trouble. He also missed things that weren't details at all, such as being in constant touch with Netanyahu to ensure he didn't backtrack, while not being in similar touch with Abbas, not realizing he wasn't on board, and eventually watching him jettison the process for yet another empty agreement with Hamas. Most damning, in my reading, was the apparent American assumption that it was Netanyahu whose positoins needed eroding, while Abbas was taken for granted: if we deliver Netanyahu Abbas will make the deal and won't need cajoling of his own. Or, as Herzog puts it: Kerry felt his positions were closer to those of Abbas.
Except, of course, the Palestinian positions were never what Kerry thought they were, which is why irrespective of how much Netanyahu grudgingly moved, no agreement was within reach at any moment. If you read too much of the New York Times and not enough of the Palestinian sources, you'll end up believing in a reality which doesn't exist.