This week saw John Kerry’s fifth visit to the Middle East since he became Secretary of State in February this year.
It is clear that Kerry is investing much personal energy and time, and US diplomatic esteem, in trying to get Netanyahu and Abbas to agree to the renewal of peace talks.
As a token of his commitment to the cause, before boarding his flight, Kerry announced that two of his aides would remain in Israel to work on bridging remaining differences that are preventing the resumption of negotiations.
This is a starting point that has been visited many times before, but in the current political climate seems increasingly unreachable.
After decades of aborted deals and four years since the last talks broke down, success in bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table would be a significant achievement for the Obama administration and for Kerry personally.
Upon his departure Kerry boasted that “real progress” had been made, stating that with “little more work, the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach.”
In the wake of Kerry’s visit reaction on the ground was mixed, but there seemed to be a broad consensus that no real breakthrough had been achieved. In an article published by the Jerusalem Post, both Israeli and Palestinian officials acknowledged that some advances had been made but both blamed the other for obstructing efforts to achieving real peace.
Whilst there have been many thwarted attempts at peace in the past, it has never seemed so difficult to get the two camps to just agree to sit at the negotiating table. So why is the current process so static?
From the outset, Abbas presented to Kerry three conditions for the renewal of negotiations: the complete cessation of construction in the West Bank, the release of all security prisoners who were arrested before the Oslo Accords (some with blood on their hands), and that talks on borders be based on the 1967 lines.
It is important to clarify that these are not prerequisites for signing off on a peace deal, but for agreeing to even begin negotiations. Israel has made no demands on the Palestinians as a prelude to resuming peace talks. After all, isn’t this the main purpose of negotiations to launch one’s gripes in a diplomatic forum?
All of these demands are unacceptable to Netanyahu as conditions for the renewal of negotiations. Netanyahu has said all along that his only goal is to resume negotiations without preconditions. Israel also said it will not agree to release all the prisoners the Palestinians are demanding.
At his weekly cabinet meeting Netanyahu said “Israel is ready to begin negotiations without delay, without preconditions. We are not putting up any impediments. But no final agreement would endanger Israelis’ security.”
The US has described Netanyahu’s refusal to enforce a formal ‘freeze on settlements’ and bow to other Palestinian demands, as ‘hard-headed’ and counterproductive. Yet in order to understand Netanyahu’s obsession with security we need only turn to the events of the last ten days. After a barrage of rockets landed in Southern Israel, a few days ago the IDF also seized a large cache of illegal weapons discovered in the homes of terror suspects in Nablus. Three suspects were arrested in connection with the weapons.
As always, much of the media’s coverage of Kerry’s visit has been critical of Israel, and the issue of settlements as the obstruction to peace has been a recurring theme.
This week the New York Times made a big deal of the construction of 69 new apartments in Har Homa, comparing the move to “an embarrassing 2010 episode in which the Israeli Inferior Ministry approved a large development in another annexed area of Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting.”
It would be remiss to claim that Israel’s actions are flawless, or that concessions are not needed on both sides. In fact, Israeli Intelligence Minister, Yuval Steinitz came out this week and said “Israel is ready to make painful territorial concessions…but not for a false peace. For a real peace that will endure, for decades, for longer.”
PA negotiator Saeb Erekat turned the announcement of these building permits in Har Homa into an excuse for why the Palestinians were not agreeing to talks. Additionally, this view has been echoed by many Western countries in recent days.
However, to label the approval of building permits in a Jewish area of Jerusalem as the reason for the absence of peace talks is to take one small dimension of the conflict out of the much broader Palestinian-Israeli context. Plainly, it is a cop out.
Even under a proposed peace plan, such as that offered by Ehud Olmert in 2008 Israel would retain Har Homa and other big and established towns such as Maale Adumim. (You can see the map of Olmert’s proposed peace plan here).
In an insightful article published in Commentary Magazine Jonathan Tobin points out that Abbas’ prerequisites are hindering potentials for peace. He says “what is most interesting…is the way the Palestinians and other critics of Israel are trying to raise the ante even before anyone sits down together.”
Tobin continues : “The point is, if the Palestinians really want a state in almost all the West Bank (something Netanyahu has signalled this week he can live with) and a share of Jerusalem, what does it matter to them how many Jews live in the parts they won’t get?”
Israel is not making any demands for the Palestinians to stop construction in the West Bank in areas that wouldn’t remain with Israel under a proposed peace plan. After all, this would be antithetical to the peace process, and logistically impractical.
It is striking that in the wake of Kerry’s visit, Israel has received criticism from Western countries for refusing to bow to the PA’s lengthy demands. However, no nation or institution has demanded an end to Palestinian glorification of terrorism or incitement against Israel in official media as the concession for resuming negotiations. For more on this I recommend you read a great blog written by Elliot Abrams on the Council of Foreign Affairs website, ‘Kerry, Jerusalem and the Palestinian Concessions.’
For a country that is continuously bombarded with rockets and attempts at terror, security cannot be talked about in the abstract.
This week, at commemoration marking the 109th anniversary of the death of Herzl, Netanyahu summed up the government’s approach in full; “a fundamental condition for our existence and for the existence of peace, to achieve peace and maintain it, is security.”
Meanwhile, Morsi’s regime falls in Egypt
Most of you would have read that overnight Egypt’s first democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted. It came after four days of mass demonstrations even larger than those of the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The armed forces announced that a temporarily civilian government will be instilled, which Morsi denounced as a “full coup.”
At this stage, it is too early to say what this turmoil means for Israel, and for the region at large.
President Obama urged the military to “hand back control to a democratic, civilian government as soon as possible.” But according to the Times of Israel, “stopped short of calling it a coup d’etat.”
All that is certain at the moment is that a precarious vacuum of power has emerged on Israel’s southern border, with little indication of who will fill it. As always, Israel must be ready for any situation.
Media and Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia