Kerry’s Middle East Grind

For most who spend time watching and analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, weary cynicism is the default pose. It’s not entirely unjustified. Few conflicts have seen as many false starts and dashed hopes as the effort to negotiate an end to Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state.

So the skepticism that greeted Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that he would take up the issue as one of the priorities of his tenure was not surprising. What was surprising was the vigor with which Kerry approached the issue from the get-go. Multiple visits to the region soon resulted in a re-introduction of the Arab Peace Initiative, in which Arab states promised full normalization with Israel in exchange for a resolution of the Palestinian issue, and, later in the summer, a re-start of talks, with Israelis and Palestinians both committing to stay in negotiations for at least nine months.

The road hasn’t been an easy one. While all sides agreed not to speak to the press about the details of talks, what leaks have emerged indicate that little genuine progress has been made in bridging divides over the core issues of borders, refugees, settlements, and Jerusalem.

One way in which this process differs from recent attempts, however, is in the considerable attention shown by Kerry not just to the talks themselves, but cultivating an environment around the talks that gives them the best possible chance to succeed, most recently on the issue of security and the role played by the European Union, and removing any excuse for not getting to an agreement.

Unlike the Obama administration’s first go at the peace process, the new approach seems to appreciate the ways in which the Israeli public has changed over the past decade, particularly with regard to perceptions of security. When President Obama named George Mitchell as his special envoy on Middle East peace in January 2009, Mitchell essentially tried to pick up where he left off in 2001, when he chaired a fact-finding commission on the outbreak of the Second Intifada. According to a number of Israelis I’ve spoken to, Mitchell’s approach failed to understand the way in which the Second Intifada, which saw numerous terror attacks inside Israel, traumatized the Israeli public. Even as a solid majority of Israelis continue to support the two-state solution, they remain far more cautious about steps, such as a withdrawing troops from the West Bank, that, even if necessary to achieve such a solution, could potentially result in a return of such attacks.

Kerry’s approach addressed Israeli security concerns up front. In May, the Obama administration announced the appointment of retired U.S. Marine General John Allen, formerly commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, to oversee the most comprehensive American assessment of Israeli security concerns ever undertaken. Earlier this month, Kerry briefed both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the assessment, describing it only as “some thoughts” on security arrangements in any future accord.

Israelis reportedly responded in a non-committal way to the proposals, neither accepting nor rejecting them, whereas Palestinians responded with alarm over the proposal that Israeli forces be allowed to continue to control their border with Jordan for ten years or more. While the responses of both sides underline yet again that the road ahead will be difficult, it’s a smart play to front-load the process this way. While all Israeli leaders over the years have stressed the need for security in any agreement, Netanyahu has raised it to the level of mantra, using it to parry any pressure on Israel, suggesting that those expecting concessions simply don’t understand Israel’s security needs. By authorizing such an extensive assessment of those needs, one done in deep and virtually exclusive consultation with Israelis themselves, the Obama administration can now respond that, “Yes, in fact, we do understand.”

A second key difference in the current approach is the role of the European Union. For years willing to take a (way) backseat to U.S. management of the talks, in the past months the EU has made its presence more clearly felt.

Back in June, the EU announced guidelines stating that future “grants, prizes and other financial instruments” from the European Union and must exclude Israeli organizations operating in the occupied West Bank. Israeli officials reacted angrily, but while some feared would undermine efforts to re-start talks, both U.S. and Israeli officials later said that the EU measures had the opposite effect. President Abbas reportedly felt that the EU measures affirmed his position and made it possible for him to give up on his demand for a settlement freeze, whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu “feared that Israeli public would blame him personally for Israel’s isolation.”

This message was reinforced last week, when a European Union official issued warnings to Israeli leaders that Israel risked increased isolation and boycott efforts if peace talks stalled as a result of continued settlement construction. The EU also stated that if an agreement were not reached, it could halt funding to the Palestinian Authority.

These warnings were accompanied by the announcement by the EU of an unprecedented offer of close economic and political ties to both Israel and Palestine once an agreement is signed. According to EU Special Representative for the Peace Process Andreas Reinicke, the move is designed to serve as an incentive to both sides to get to an agreement soon. The message is, “Israelis and Palestinians, when you sign an agreement, you will be as close as possible to the European Union without actually being a member,” Reinicke said Thursday on a call organized by the Israel Policy Forum.

I asked whether the new EU move of upping both incentives (the offer of greater economic and political partnership) and disincentives (the threat of greater isolation for Israel, and an end to funding for the Palestinians) to Israel marked a new approach, but Reinicke disagreed with that characterization. “Some people call this ‘disincentives,’ some call it a threat, but this isn’t the case,” he said. “It’s just a description of what will happen if we leave this conflict simmering without a solution.”

“The EU has always made clear that we recognize Israel inside the ‘67 lines. We’ve said this many times,” Reinicke continued. But as the EU’s policy is that Israeli settlement activity is both unlawful and harmful to the peace process, “The more activity there is on the eastern side of green line”—the 1949 Armistice line, marking the line between Israel and the occupied West Bank—“the more we have to make sure that our policy is respected. These sort of things we will make increasingly clear until the moment there is an agreement.”

Asked about Palestinians complaints that the recently concluded security assessment privileged Israeli security concerns over Palestinian sovereignty, Reinicke said the goal of the security briefings was “to find out where everyone stands at this particular moment,” in order to address issues of concern. But, “There will be no peace and no security for Israel without security for the Palestinians,” Reinicke said, and, he quickly added, “without Palestinian dignity.”

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