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John Kerry’s optimism on negotiations not shared by Israelis and Palestinians

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat address reporters on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat address reporters on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2013. Credit: U.S. State Department.

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned from his Middle East trip last week with an optimistic message, following his latest attempt to foster progress in Israel-Palestinian peace talks and the presentation of a security proposal to both sides, Israelis and Palestinians aren’t sharing his positive outlook.

From Dec. 4-6, Kerry accompanied in Jerusalem and Ramallah by retired four-star Marine Gen. John Allen, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Allen presented Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with what Kerry and the State Department have carefully described as only “some thoughts” on the resolution of security issues that have been obstructing progress in negotiations.

“President Obama and I are absolutely committed to reaching a final status agreement that recognizes two states for two peoples, living side-by-side in peace and security,” Kerry said Dec. 7 in his keynote address to the Tenth Annual Saban Forum, sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Joining the secretary of state at the forum were major players such as President Barack Obama and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, while Netanyahu spoke via webcast.

“Peace is possible today because we have courageous leaders who have already taken significant political risks for peace—and the time is approaching when they will have to take even more,” Kerry said.

The exact contents of Gen. Allen’s proposal—compiled after months of conversations at the helm of a core group of security advisers and security officials on both sides—remain confidential. From the start, Kerry made certain that a strict gag order was placed on the negotiations, declaring that he will act as the sole source of information on the talks. The State Department insists that this level of secrecy is necessary to facilitate frank discussion and is one of the hard-learned lessons from past failures on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

But Elliott Abrams, former top National Security Council official and currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Jewish Week (WJW), “I don’t know any Israelis or Palestinians who share Secretary Kerry’s optimism or can understand its basis.”

“The most recent Israeli polls show that very few Israelis think he will succeed in getting a final status agreement, and I don’t think so either,” Abrams said, referring to a recent poll compiled by New Wave Research for Israel Hayom. The poll showed 87.5 percent of Israeli Jews saying that they did not believe the new talks would lead to peace.

Israeli and Palestinian officials are also sounding pessimistic notes on negotiations. Top Palestinian Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo told AFP that Kerry’s security proposals “will drive Kerry’s efforts to an impasse and to total failure.” Netanyahu said at a Likud party meeting on Monday, “We are not standing before a permanent accord. We have a set of specific terms that have yet to be met in the negotiations. … We are still not there, not even walking down that hall.”

“The two sides are too far apart,” Abrams told WJW.

Though Abrams commended Kerry for striving to achieve peace, he questioned the resources the secretary of state is putting into the process.

“Is he really spending his own precious time well, pursuing an agreement that no one thinks he’ll get—and he won’t get—when so many world crises exist?” Abrams said.

Kerry and the State Department insist this round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is different from past U.S. efforts, even though most of the negotiators—led by former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk—have unsuccessfully negotiated in the region before.

“Both sides have shown a recent willingness to make some very difficult decisions in the face of domestic political opposition,” a State Department official said, “with Prime Minister Netanyahu agreeing to release Palestinian prisoners and President Abbas agreeing not to try to upgrade Palestinian status at international organizations for the duration of the talks.”

Amid the State Department’s optimism, theTimes of Israel reports that Palestinian officials are saying Kerry used his trip as an ultimatum to force them to agree to his security demands, threatening to have Israel delay further phases of the release of Palestinian terrorist prisoners until the Palestinian Authority agrees to framework agreements.

Though not without some reservations on the current negotiations’ chances for success, Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center, told WJW that the political situation in the Middle East has changed to where there may be more incentive for Israeli and Palestinian officials to come to an agreement.

“We’ve seen the Arab awakening—changes in Egypt, tragic changes in Syria that have turned into a terrible civil war, and fear that there may be instability elsewhere as well,” Sachs said.

“This of course is a cause for concern for the Israelis considering the advance of jihadi groups near Israel, in the Sinai Peninsula and in Syria, particularly if they win,” he said.

Sachs said that changes in Israeli politics might also help the talks. He explained that unlike previous pushes for a peace deal, when centrist Israeli prime ministers like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak oversaw negotiations but could not convince Israel’s right-wing parties to support their efforts, the current Netanyahu government’s more hawkish stance could spell real solutions without appearing to compromise the security of the Israeli people.

Although not privy to Allen’s proposal, Sachs believes the contents are intended to appease Israel’s security concerns in a way that would not infringe on demands for the sovereignty of the proposed future Palestinian state.

A major sticking point for negotiations has been security in the Jordan River Valley and a series of Jordan River border crossings. The Jordan River Valley runs from Israel’s northern border with Syria, south into the Dead Sea. A large part of it makes up the border between the West Bank and Jordan.

Negotiators hope to find a security solution to appease Israel’s need to deploy troops along the valley in what is known as the “Eastern Front,” to prevent potential military threats from neighbors to the east. The Jordan River crossings, currently controlled by the Israel Defense Forces, are major points of entry into the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Israeli security officials fear that these crossings could become routes for weapons and terrorists into the region, if Israel relinquished control. But Palestinians insist on securing the ability to have sole control over their borders in a future state, including control over who comes in and out of their territory. According to Sachs, both sides have presented what he terms as “non-starter” demands for a final-status agreement.

Kerry’s proposal outlines for the Jordan River crossings to be jointly administered by the IDF and the Palestinian Authority, while maintaining the IDF’s right to deploy troops in case of a potential threat, the Times of Israel reports. PA officials reportedly rejected that proposal, refusing to allow for any IDF presence along the border.

Other demands from the Palestinians include that negotiations be based on 1967 borders, with land swaps of equal size and value; right of return for an agreed-upon number of Palestinian refugees; and a division of Jerusalem to include East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

“The main sticking point remains the exact contours of the agreement in Jerusalem, and those the parties have never actually agreed upon. They’ve come closer in the past, but they’ve never agreed,” Sachs said.

At the Saban Forum, Kerry reaffirmed his support for Israel and its security needs. But Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, told WJW that Kerry’s latest Mideast visit was a “charm offensive” to repair what Pollak sees as strained U.S.-Israel relations stemming from the interim nuclear deal that was recently reached between Iran and world powers. Netanyahu told the Saban Forum Dec. 8 that the U.S. should not back down from imposing new sanctions on Iran, despite ongoing negotiations.

On Israeli-Palestinian talks, Kerry maintains they are expected to reach a resolution by April 2014, the nine-month deadline established when negotiations began last July. The secretary of state is revisiting Jerusalem and Ramallah from Dec. 11-18, his ninth trip to the region since assuming office.

This story was originally published by the Washington Jewish Week.

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