Kerry's Heavy Lifting Begins on Israel-Palestine

Defying the skeptics, Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had “established a basis” to return to peace talks, which have stalled since 2010. Kerry is wisely keeping a close hold on details so as not to create opportunities for spoilers in advance of negotiations actually taking place, but the latest is that preliminary talks, in which the Palestinians will be represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israelis by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s “personal envoy” Yitzhak Molcho, will begin in Washington next Tuesday.

Now that new talks are imminent, critics are hard at work detailing the challenges ahead. As Daniel Levy noted in a recent piece, “Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth.” The more important question now is whether, having successfully brought the parties back to the table, Kerry will be able to tee up a meaningful process with clear terms of reference and enforceable commitments from all sides.

Along with Israel’s refusal to cease building settlements in the West Bank, the lack of clear terms of reference was a key sticking point for the Palestinians re-entering talks. As detailed in the Palestine Papers (some 1600 private documents detailing a decade’s worth of U.S.-managed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, leaked and published by Al Jazeera in 2011), Palestinians have long sought to establish the 1967 lines as a starting point for negotiations, a position supported by multiple UN resolutions as well as President Obama in a May 2011 speech on the Middle East. The issue was apparently dealt with by Kerry offering assurances on this point.

As for the settlement issue, Kerry got an unexpected assist from the European Union’s surprise announcement of new regulations barring EU support for Israeli entities located east of the 1967 lines. A source close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told me that the EU move had been “very positive,” enabling Abbas to agree to move forward. For its part, Israel has agreed to limit settlement growth during the duration of talks, as well as to release a number of Palestinians prisoners, another longstanding demand of Abbas’.

Back in the U.S., Kerry continues to face questions over his efforts, particularly questions about why, given the other crises roiling the region–Egypt’s coup, Syria’s civil war, the Iranian nuclear program–he’s dedicating this much time an energy to an issue that has so frustrated past administrations. The Brookings Institution’s Shibley Telhami, who has conducted polls of Arab public opinion for years, addressed this question in a piece this week. “Critics miss the point,” Telhami wrote. “No issue is more central for Arab perceptions of the United States—even as Arabs are focused on their immediate local and national priorities.” In a conversation several years ago, former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Dan Kurtzer told me something very similar: “It’s not the biggest problem in the region,” he said, “but it is the issue on which perception of U.S. power is largely formed.” 

This isn’t just a matter of public relations in the Middle East, but of national security.  On that point, Secretary Kerry’s efforts got a push over the weekend from another important source: The U.S. military. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, former CENTCOM chief General James Mattis explained to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer why he thought Kerry’s focus on resolving the conflict was “right on target.”

“I paid a military security price every day as a commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” Mattis said, “and that moderates all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us because they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”

Mattis’ comments echo those made by his predecessor at CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, who issued a similar warning to Congress in 2010. “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests [in the Middle East]”, Petraeus’ statement read. “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [area of responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

Patraeus’ comments were met with consternation in some quarters—the Anti Defamation League’s Abe Foxman insisted that Petraeus had “simply erred” in his analysis–reflecting a tendency of many in the U.S. to resist the idea that the U.S.-Israel relationship generates any negative consequences for its senior partner. But not only is it a fairly commonly held view in the U.S. military that the irresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates problems for the U.S. in the region, it’s consonant with the view of many in the Israeli security establishment–see the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, and this recent op-ed by former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin—that the continuing occupation will be a long term disaster for Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. Marshaling these views behind Secretary Kerry’s efforts will be essential to create the necessary political support in both the U.S. and Israel in the days and months ahead. 

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The obstacles to peace remain unchanged from past efforts to hammer out a deal. Israel questions how Palestinians can continue to fire rockets into civilian neighborhoods, and Palestinians say Israel is undermining the talks by continuing to build on disputed land in the West Bank.

On Wednesday, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Abbas, said that every time Kerry tries to advance the peace process, “Israel seeks to destroy these efforts through its decisions and its ongoing settlement activities.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has resurrected the idea of a land swap, transferring 10 northern towns that are home to 300,000 Israeli Arabs to Palestinian control in return for a similar area of land on the West Bank being permanently annexed to Israel. The idea has been met with general dismay by residents of Umm-El –Fahm, the biggest Arab town in the proposed swap, a town with a history of anti-Israel sentiment.

“[We] are unwilling to act as pawns in the service of Liberman and the Israeli right,” read a statement from Umm-El-Fahm’s City Council. “We are the children of this land. We inherited it from our ancestors, and nobody can speak or negotiate on our behalf in any future agreement with the Palestinians.”

While Kerry has yet to comment publicly on Liberman’s proposal, Efraim Inbar thinks the Americans “might be taking it seriously.”

“I don’t think there is a legal problem because any state has the right to give up some of its territory,” he said. “It’s very ironic to hear Arabs saying they want to remain in a Jewish state. The polls show they don’t want to be part of a Palestinian state -- and with good reason. They’re not stupid. It’s not such a great thing to be a Palestinian citizen.”
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