The pundits may be skeptical of the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that got underway this week, but officials involved in the negotiations are mostly sounding upbeat and optimistic. Even chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, though uncharacteristically laconic, sounded vaguely hopeful.
“Palestinians have suffered enough, and no one benefits more from the success of this endeavor than Palestinians,” he said at a press conference Tuesday in Washington alongside US Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel’s top negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. “It’s time for the Palestinians to live in peace, freedom, and dignity within their own independent, sovereign state,” he added, concluding his remarks just a few moments after he began (as opposed to Livni and Kerry, who spoke at length).
In Washington and Jerusalem, officials were keen during the last few days on conveying messages of hope and change.
“There’s new circumstances, there have been elections in Israel, there’s another election here, we have a new secretary of state,” a senior White House official said Tuesday, a few hours after the press conference, explaining why the administration believes that the current round of talks might prove to be more successful than the last. “There’s a new dynamic vis-à-vis the UN… each successive year [there’s] another process going on there, a new coalition in Israel, a new strategic environment with Syria, Egypt, and developments taking place in the rest of the region.”
Livni said that “history is not made by cynics; it is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.”
The circumstances and the players may have changed, but the final-status issues remain the same: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security and settlements. So far, however, Israelis and Palestinians have publicly agreed on only four things: that there will be talks for nine months, that all final-status issues will be raised, that the Palestinians are set to receive a $4 billion economic incentive, and that Israel will release 104 long-term prisoners during the course of the negotiations. (Actually, make that three things: it’s not clear that the talks will go on for the full allotted term. “If after one month we will see that the talks aren’t headed anywhere, we won’t pursue them,” Livni said Wednesday.)
According to Kerry, “all of the final-status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation.” That means that, whether the talks lead to an agreement or not, at the very least the two sides will be forced to lay their cards on the table.
Once and for all, the Palestinians will have to reveal whether they are ready to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (a key Israeli demand, for which it has the backing of the US) and whether the Palestinian state will be willing to accept Jewish settlers who wish to remain in their West Bank homes (PA President Mahmoud Abbas indicated a flat no to that, earlier this week).
The integrity of Jerusalem, ‘Israel’s eternal, undivided capital,’ is no longer non-negotiable
On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to come out of his shell and present a map showing how he envisions the contours of a future state of Palestine. So far, Netanyahu has shied away from revealing his take on the question of borders, but now that might no longer be possible. He will likely be roasted at home, but if he wants to be taken seriously in Washington, his border proposal will have to be based, more or less, on the 1967 lines, with land swaps to allow Israel to annex the major settlement blocs.
Netanyahu will also have to talk about the division of Jerusalem, a notion he has fought throughout his political career. It is unclear whether he will budge on these issues, but he will be forced to negotiate. In other words, the integrity of Jerusalem, “Israel’s eternal, undivided capital,” is no longer non-negotiable.
But that’s pretty much all anyone knows about the content and the structure of the negotiations. The parties agreed to not divulge anything concrete about the talks, and “that means that no one should consider any reports, articles, or other — or even rumors — reliable,” Kerry said, “unless they come directly from me, and I guarantee you they won’t.”
Not only do the sides hope to keep news about progress (or the lack thereof) under wraps, the very premise on which these talks were started is shrouded in mystery. No terms of reference were published, and there are conflicting reports about letters the US sent to both sides (some claim Israelis and Palestinian received separate letters, each telling the reader what he wanted to hear), while others insist no letters were issued at all.
What we do know is that Kerry is putting much stock in his economic initiative, which is being facilitated by Mideast Quartet envoy Tony Blair. “This is not a US assistance program,” a senior US State Department official explained Tuesday. “The objective here is to leverage the private sector into making very, very significant investments into the West Bank and also the Gaza Strip.”
On security, the three sides have merely agreed to divulge that US Gen. John Allen “is on the ground working to ensure Israel’s security needs will be met,” Kerry said. Allen’s job is to “understand the requirements of security arrangements for a two-state solution,” a senior American official said Wednesday in Tel Aviv. Allen has been working with his counterparts in the Israel Defense Forces “and will speak to the Palestinian side as well,” the official said.
Beyond that, Israel has agreed to take “a number of steps in order to improve conditions in the West Bank and in Gaza,” according to Kerry. To ensure the success of his economic initiative, Israeli authorities will have to “change some of their rules and regulations and behaviors and attitudes,” a senior US official said, hinting at the lifting of restrictions on movement in the West Bank. “And they’ve indicated a strong willingness to do that,” he added, unwilling to specify beyond that “they’ve agreed to take some steps.”
It thus remains unclear what is going to happen on the ground other than the removal of boulders blocking Palestinian access to some West Bank roads. There are reports about Israel having agreed to slow down settlement construction; other sources claim Netanyahu promised to advance construction of thousands of housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to get his coalition partners to agree to the release of the Palestinian prisoners.
In the last few days, US officials generously offered explanations as to why they believe that this time peace can be achieved, but were extremely stingy with information about how exactly the sides would go about achieving their objective. And so, as the nth round of peace talks gets underway — the first in nearly three years — the public is left with more questions than answers.
All final status issues will be discussed, but in which order? Or are they all being brought up at the same time? Is there a plan B in case the gaps prove to be too wide? Is anyone considering an interim agreement? What happens if no deal is signed after nine months?
And what did Netanyahu demand in return for freeing the Palestinian terrorists? Permission to build in the settlements? Perhaps a green light for a strike on Iran?