The elusive road to the negotiating table
25 July 2013
By Gabsy Debinski
It has been a big few days in Israel. After an intense round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at reviving the inactive peace process, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announced that the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to the resumption of peace talks.
Kerry said that the basis for the resumption of the negotiations will be laid out during the Israeli-Palestinian-American meeting to take place in Washington in the coming days.
As always when it comes to Middle East diplomacy, the feeling on the ground is mixed. An article published by the Tablet magazine sums up this sentiment; “some are calling this talks about talks. Others are cautiously hopeful.”
But what do the pending talks really entail?
Prime Minister Netanyahu plans to put a bill before Knesset that would make any peace deal with the Palestinians contingent on the Israeli public’s approval in a national referendum.
In Sunday’s Cabinet meeting Netanyahu said “I don’t think these decisions can be made, if there is a deal, by one government or another, but need to be brought as a national decision.”
This comes off the back of a law passed in 2010, where the government made the holding of a national referendum mandatory in any case where Israel would be required to surrender sovereignty over annexed territories (i.e. East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)
According to a statement by the Israeli government, talks are set to last for 9-12 months. Israel would be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians by negotiator, Saeb Erekat. While Kerry said that he expected the talks to kick-off next week, Israeli officials said they might require a further week of preparation.
Netanyahu and Abbas; partners in peace?
There has been much conjecture in the press about whether Abbas and the Palestinians have formally agreed to negotiations, as well as whether Netanyahu is willing to make concessions needed to give negotiations the best chance of succeeding.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu reiterated that restarting the diplomatic process was a “vital” Israeli strategic interest, and that he would be guided by two principles: “to thwart the creation of a bi-national state, and to prevent the establishment of another Iranian-backed terrorist state on Israel’s borders.”
While many have questioned Netanyahu’s ‘far right agenda,’ it is important to consider that since he was first elected in 1996, the Prime Minister has done a number of things he previously said he would never do including withdrawing from most of Hebron, accepting a two-state solution and freeing hundreds of terrorists in a prisoner swap. Indeed this signals progress. Furthermore, Netanyahu’s appointment of Tzipi Livni, Israel’s leading advocate for the two-state solution, as chief negotiator is an encouraging sign.
On Sunday, President Peres apparently called Abbas to congratulate him for taking “the courageous step” of going back to the negotiating table. Abbas told Peres in response that he hopes the talks would make progress and lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state “that will live in neighbourliness and peace with Israel.” He continued, “We must continue the peace process that we started a few years ago and finish it.”
It is troubling that 78-year-old Abbas presides over a greatly divided people, with Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip and his Fatah faction dominating the West Bank.
Hamas (which has run Gaza since it ousted Abbas’s Fatah party after the 2006 elections) saying it “considers the Palestinian Authority’s return to negotiations with the occupation to be at odds with the national consensus.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP that Abbas had no right to negotiate on the Palestinian people’s behalf.”
This bitter divide within the Palestinian camp is cause for concern. Should Hamas yield influence, it could be the final blow to Kerry’s initiative.
Preconditions or no preconditions?
Release of Palestinian prisoners
The issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners has been central in the lead up to the resumption of peace talks.
The consensus is that following a two-hour conversation with Kerry, Netanyahu agreed to release Palestinian prisoners as an act of ‘good will’ aimed at renewing negotiations with the Palestinians.
According to The Times of Israel , Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he would not bring a vote on the release of the prisoners before his entire cabinet. Rather, a vote will be put before the seven-minister security cabinet, where many believe he is assured support for the key gesture. Israeli security cabinet is expected to vote within a few days on the release of Palestinian security prisoners.
This smaller group includes Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, Home Front Minister Gilad Erdan, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.
The prisoners to be freed are part of a group of Palestinians who have been in Israeli prisons since before the signing of the Oslo Accords, in 1993, serving terms for their involvement in terror attacks in which Israeli citizens were killed. Exactly how many will be released is still unknown.
Most likely, the vote will be held next Sunday, before the start of talks in Washington. But the prisoners will only be released after the talks start in a series of ‘gradual phases.’ According to Haaretz, “the prisoners will be released in four groups, one group every six to eight weeks according to progress in the negotiation.” This is one of the major incentives for the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
As always, the release of Palestinian prisoners is a cause of great divide amongst Israelis.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told reporters Saturday that Israel “must learn from past mistakes and not release terrorists with blood on their hands as a goodwill gesture or a prize.”
This view was also echoed by former ambassador, Yorram Ettinger. He said; “there is no doubt that releasing terrorists would only embolden future terrorists.” You can see Ettinger’s interview with Yisrael Hayom here.
Israel says no to the resumption of talks on the basis of pre-1967 lines and settlement freeze
There is still much confusion about the conditions of the talks.
According to Israeli officials, the talks would resume without Israel agreeing to a settlement freeze, without Israel agreeing to negotiations for a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, and without there first being a release of long time Palestinian prisoners.
Yuval Steinitz, who serves as minister for intelligence, international relations and strategic affairs, said that the Palestinians had also agreed not to pursue action against Israel in the international arena, at the UN for example, for the duration of the negotiations.
Netanyahu has given endorsement to the idea of a Palestinian state but has not delineated his vision of boundaries, while demanding that the Palestinian recognize Israel as the Jewish state. On the other hand, Abbas has implied that to do this would undermine the Palestinian claim that millions of refugees and their descendants have the right of return.
Some have said that the Israelis and Palestinians remain too far apart on final-status issues, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and East Jerusalem for any real progress to be made.
Already, we have heard all the reasons why these talks will fail. But, for now despite the overwhelming scepticism about his mission, Kerry should probably be commended for reaching this threshold.
Those involved in the process and expert analysts agree that the hardest part is yet to come.