from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Secretary Kerry’s Creative Ambiguity and Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

July 20, 2013

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At the conclusion of his sixth arduous Middle East shuttle Friday night, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the imminent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington. Kerry’s circuitous announcement, that the parties had “reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations,” was short on details and ambiguous, even by diplomatic standards. Such imprecision at first blush suggests that the parties still have a ways to go before the United States’ chief diplomat can declare negotiations fully back on track. But it also reflects a highly creative use of diplomatic ambiguity as a means towards allowing each side to find a way back to the negotiating table.

Recall, ever since formal negotiations fell apart in September 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu has adhered to the position that negotiations should resume without preconditions. Meanwhile, PLO President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will not return to the table without certain assurances: a West Bank settlement freeze and the release of prisoners, for starters.

By saying that the parties have not agreed yet to negotiations, but have agreed to face-to-face talks in the U.S. capital, Kerry has found a way for both sides to declare their needs met for an eventual return to negotiations. Netanyahu can say that he succeeded in producing negotiations without preconditions. Indeed, he did just that, issuing a statement twenty-four hours after Kerry’s, welcoming “the resumption of the diplomatic process as this time.”

In the wake of Kerry’s announcement, Palestinian officials have insisted that they have not yet agreed to negotiations, only to efforts to secure their demands. That formula allowed Israeli and Palestinian “face-to-face talks” over the course of 2011 and 2012 without calling them negotiations.

On Saturday, Israel’s Minister of International Relations announced Israel would release “heavyweight” Palestinian prisoners who have been incarcerated for over twenty years. Such releases are unlikely to occur before talks begin. Thus, Israel will maintain that the release of “pre-Oslo” prisoners, as they are frequently called, is not a payment for negotiations, and the Palestinians will claim just the opposite. Producing such diplomatic sleights of hand is what has made Kerry’s efforts to restart negotiations so challenging.  Yet they are precisely what have been necessary.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for American mediators has been producing a formula for the basis of talks. The Palestinian have long held that talks must begin on the basis of the line that demarcated the West Bank from Israel prior to the June 1967 Six Day War. Israel, in turn, has insisted that any terms of reference must include a Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state as part of any terms for talks.

The New York Times reported that Secretary Kerry will issue a statement that negotiations will be based on the 1967 land with land swaps AND recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The U.S. has reportedly reached understandings that neither side will be forced to publicly endorse these principles.

Both Abbas and Netanyahu will be able to claim that they did not cross their red-lines for entering negotiations—an assertion their domestic critics will call legalistic diplomatese. While neither man faces a public clamoring for an active peace process, neither party wants to be accused of foiling an activist secretary of state who has early on staked this issue out as a legacy agenda item.

Diplomatic ambiguity of the sort produced by Secretary Kerry will likely allow Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume in the immediate period ahead, despite their clear procedural and substantive differences. Yet getting the parties to this point entailed a tremendous investment of political personal prestige and energy. Getting the two sides to agree to an enduring peace agreement will require clarity and transparency—two elements lacking to date. Substantive progress will require Secretary Kerry’s constant engagement and a tremendous expenditure of diplomatic capital. That alone, however, is unlikely to be sufficient.