Crucial Stage for Mideast Talks

As Israelis and Palestinians balk at compromises pushed by the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry is back in the region trying to keep talks on track, says CFR’s Robert Danin.

December 11, 2013
12:08 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Secretary Kerry has returned to the Middle East for another round of talks, saying that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are at a crucial stage. Israelis and Palestinians dispute any notion that they are closer to an agreement than they have been in a long time, says CFR’s Robert Danin. Kerry is focusing on trying to resolve the question of who will police the West Bank if it is turned over to Palestinian control, says Danin. A reported plan to offer Israel a ten-year presence in the Jordan Valley has met with strong Palestinian objections, according to Danin. Additionally, other key issues remain, such as solving the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" to former Palestinian land in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference following a meeting at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem December 5, 2013.U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a press conference following a meeting at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on December 5, 2013. (Gali Tibbon/Courtesy Reuters)

Secretary Kerry, who was in Israel and the Palestinian territories last week, has returned for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on his way to Asia. Is this a sign of progress or a desperation move?

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I would not call it an act of desperation. What he has said is he believes that the two sides are closer than they’ve been to an agreement in a long time. That characterization was immediately challenged by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said this week that he didn’t think the two sides were close to an agreement. What we do know is that Secretary Kerry now has shifted the focus of his efforts He’s now on his ninth visit to the region since becoming secretary, and in his most recent trip last week he introduced what he called some "ideas" about security requirements for peace.

Did he brief the Palestinians as well as the Israelis about these security ideas?

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Yes. What we’re seeing now is that the Palestinians don’t like the security ideas one bit. Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of Abbas’ close advisers, just came out publicly very critical of these ideas. What seems to be the United States’ approach now is to try to address Israel’s security needs, to recognize that security is the paramount concern of Israel in a peace agreement. By doing that, what Kerry does is remove a major Israeli concern and makes it then easier to focus on the contours of the final deal when it comes to borders and the other territorial dimensions of Palestinian statehood. So this is now a new stage in the negotiations which we seem to be in, and I think Secretary Kerry wants to continue that discussion quickly before it degenerates.

What has he proposed?

We don’t know exactly what Kerry suggested, but what he has said, which was echoed by comments that President Obama has made, is that there will be a period after an agreement in which the Palestinians will not get everything they want up front, and that they’re going to have to be patient. When it comes to the Jordan Valley, the Palestinians have indicated they would accept an international presence on the border in place of Israel’s. But the Israelis are saying, no, we want a remaining Israeli presence. It seems that the Americans have tilted toward the Israeli position on this, and the Palestinians don’t like that.

What is the current status of the prisoner release agreement?

As part of the agreement that launched the latest round of negotiations was an agreement [that Israel would] release 104 prisoners. Israel said they would release them in four tranches. They’ve done two of those tranches, and are set to release another twenty-six prisoners in December. Apparently Secretary Kerry proposed that Israel defer that next prisoner release until January and do the two upcoming tranches of twenty-six in one batch.

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"Secretary Kerry probably thinks he needs to get out there quickly before they get off track, because pressures are starting to build up and clearly feelings are starting to build up on both sides."

One can only speculate that the reason Kerry’s doing this is that every time the Israelis release prisoners, they couple it with new settlement activity. It’s a [strategy] Prime Minister Netanyahu is using to keep his right-wing flank pacified by saying, okay, we’re releasing prisoners but we’re going to show that we still retain the right to build settlements. This is having a negative net effect on the negotiations, so the prisoner releases, rather than be a confidence-building act, is actually hurting the negotiating atmosphere. And so Kerry presumably thought, well, if we can wrap this up into one single step we’ll only have one more episode of a settlement announcement rather than two more. But the Palestinians are saying "no, we don’t want it done in piecemeal because you can’t start treating prisoners as a political commodity that can be traded. The agreement was to do it in December, they should do it in December."

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So Secretary Kerry probably thinks he needs to get out there quickly before they get off track, because pressures are starting to build and clearly feelings are starting to build up on both sides. In the context of the Iran interim agreement with the P5+1, Israeli concerns have heightened about their security posture. Now you have the Palestinians concerned about whether there will be an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley as part of a deal, and whether or not the prisoners will be released next month.

Kerry set a nine-month time frame for these negotiations, which concludes in April. By then, does the U.S. want to see a final agreement? Or would this be just a sort of interim agreement? That seems unclear.

That’s true. There seems to be some public confusion about this. Secretary Kerry has been very consistent in saying that he’s going for a comprehensive agreement. Now, in recent remarks, he started to use the word "framework" agreement, and some have interpreted that to mean that he may be willing to settle for less than a comprehensive agreement. He says no, a framework agreement encompasses all the final status issues under negotiation—settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, borders, etc. What he seems to be saying is that he hasn’t lowered the bar regarding the scope of the agreement. It may be less than one that dots every "i" and crosses every "t," but it would give the parties a sense of what the final contours of a two-state solution looks like. And thats what they need. They need to know what the destination looks like, so that they can describe it to their respective publics and take such a vision to a referendum, which is what the parties say that they need to do.

What would Jerusalem look like in a final accord?

President Obama has said that for many years the broad contours of an eventual solution have been absolutely clear, and they were crystallized for the world in December of 2000 when President Clinton laid down the parameters for a final status agreement that was turned down by Yasser Arafat. One can infer from that that the United States envisages that Jerusalem will be a capital both for Israel and for the state of Palestine. How that works, we don’t know.

Has the thinking about Jerusalem changed a lot since the Clinton plan was rejected?

There have been changes. I was heading the Quartet mission [the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia] from 2008 to 2010 and living in Jerusalem at the time, and one could see gradual changes taking place throughout. In essence, you have a certain degree of demographic separation within Jerusalem, and what the Clinton parameters laid out in 2000 was that what is Israeli will remain Israeli, and what is Palestinian will remain Palestinian. Thats the concept. It will be very challenging to translate that into practice, given the mosaic that exists in Jerusalem, and that can only be done in a context of goodwill and very ironclad understandings.

What about the right of return question? Is that anywhere near being solved?

This is perhaps the most difficult issue to handle, because it involves real practical issues as well as symbolic issues. And that is where creative diplomacy will be required if there’s going to be a solution. It’s the issue that I have the greatest concerns about in terms of whether or not it’s actually possible to come up with a solution.

The origins of the right of return question stem from UN General Assembly Resolution 194 at the end of the 1948 war, right?

"When it comes to the Jordan Valley, the Palestinians have indicated they would accept an international presence on the border in place of Israel’s. But the Israelis are saying, no, we want a remaining Israeli presence."

It is that resolution that the Palestinians point to suggest that they have such a right. The Israelis originally accepted UN Resolution 194, but said a limited number of Palestinians could go back to their homes within Israel. But the UN resolution does not explicitly confer any right. The language of 194 is vague. It "resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property." And so, the Israeli legal interpretation is that compensation is an alternative to compensation. Israel also notes that the 1948 war entailed the displacement of Jewish residents of Arab countries, and at various times Israeli governments have said that those claims also have to be taken into account, that there has to be compensation, as well. So it gets very sticky very quickly. The fact is, a lot of the people who were actually displaced in the 1948 war are getting on in age, and so then there come to be additional questions as to whether or not this applies to their descendants.

Will negotiations be extended past April if there is no total accord?

Some Israelis are pushing for an interim agreement, which the Palestinians reject. I think the United States will not go for an interim agreement. That leaves two options. Either there’s some sort of notional agreement reached, maybe even this framework agreement, or else they’ll have to find a way to buy extra time. Then the question is [what will happen next], given that the Palestinians have as part of this agreement agreed that they would suspend efforts to realize Palestinian statehood in UN organizations and would not challenge Israel in various international fora.

So, given that Israel will have released all its prisoners by then [as part of its agreement], what will be the incentive structure for the Palestinians to stay in the negotiations or to give greater time? The Palestinians will argue that while negotiations continue, Israel continues to build settlements. So, they argue, time is not neutral here: The longer we negotiate the more Israel shapes the outcome; we cannot accept this. There has to be an answer to that for the negotiations to proceed beyond the nine-month time frame established by Kerry.

So it’s going to be a tough few months.

That’s right, and it’s going to be tough also because Secretary Kerry is the engine driving this locomotive, and this means that it requires his attention. But remember he is overseeing a very important and critical negotiating process with Iran, and an important Geneva negotiating process potentially with the Syrians. And that’s just the Middle East. He has the rest of the world to deal with. These are all going to test his ability to multitask, his stamina, and you cannot anticipate the unforeseen.


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