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IDSA COMMENT

Israel-Palestine Talks: Enablers and Prospects

August 26, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of the long-stalled (since September 2010) Israel-Palestine peace talks on July 19 at Amman. The two sides met in Washington on July 30 – in talks that were labeled as ‘procedural’ - led by the Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and long-time Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. Since then, they have met three times in Jerusalem beginning August 14. The next round is scheduled to be held soon in the West Bank city of Jericho.

In order to prevent misunderstandings, both sides have agreed that Kerry will be the only person who will brief the media about the progress of the talks. Kerry has held out the hope that a workable solution to the intractable issues will come about in the course of the next nine months. Minister Livni told Israel Radio on August 20 that there would be ‘dramatic decisions’ by Israel at the end of the process.

Despite the nature of the contentions, the Israelis and the Palestinians have wrestled with their respective hard positions in the recent past. The 36 rounds of Ehud Olmert-Abbas talks between December 2006 and September 2008 are a case in point. A lot of ground was apparently covered, including land swaps, refugees, the nature of a non-militarised Palestinian state, and East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state, among others.

The 2005 Gaza dis-engagement was carried out by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, one of the most hawkish Israeli leaders. Abbas’s statement regarding his city of birth Safed in November 2012 (that he had a right to visit it and not the right to live there) indicated seeming flexibility on such difficult issues as the ‘right of return’. When his comments generated considerable backlash (with Hamas calling him a ‘pioneer of concessions’), Abbas backtracked and stated that he was expressing his personal opinion.

There are two enablers to the current talks – Obama’s renewed push to the ‘peace process’ and Kerry’s robust ‘shuttle diplomacy’. During his March 2013 visit to Israel, Obama said that ‘just as the Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land’. Though this was his first-ever visit to Israel, reports pointed out that he has met with Netanyahu ten times during his presidency, more than with any other world leader. Kerry, since taking over in February 2013, has traveled six times to the region till July in order to convince the two sides to re-start the stalled negotiations. This was in contrast to his predecessor Hillary Clinton who only made 5 trips during her four-year tenure.

There were three essential pre-conditions from the Palestinian side for the talks to resume. These included settlement freeze, acknowledgement of the 1967 ‘Green Line’ as the basis for future borders and the release of long-term (predating the 1993 Oslo Accords) Palestinian prisoners. The Israeli government agreed to only one of these publicly and decided to release 104 prisoners over the course of the coming year as a goodwill gesture towards the Palestinians. The first lot of 26 prisoners was released on August 13. This measure though has been greeted with much criticism from across the Israeli political spectrum.

A major strategic consideration is the need to prevent Israel from becoming a ‘bi-national’ state, as explicitly stated by Netanyahu in the aftermath of the re-starting of the talks. Other contributing factors include the June 30, 2013 European Union (EU) guidelines setting out ‘territorial limitations’ for issuing of grants to Israeli institutions in the occupied territories from 2014 onwards.

Though reports noted that the portion of such funds was limited, amounting to less than 1 per cent, the pan-European move was seized by protagonists as a symbolic gesture further highlighting Israel’s tenuous position. Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine, called the EU guidelines a ‘very, very important development’ and a practical measure that had encouraged the resumption of negotiations. Livni in the aftermath of the EU move also warned that Israel could face trade sanctions if the peace process did not move forward.

Continuing Israeli settlement construction activities are no doubt a major issue that could hurt the prospects of a solution. The number of Israeli settlers in occupied territories as of 2012 varied from 544,000 (according to Palestinian authorities) to 325,000 (according to Israel). The Netanyahu government gave the go ahead for further construction activities in settlements like Gilo, after the two sides met in Washington, potentially jeopardizing the current process. The Israeli government spokesperson has however insisted that construction activities were in areas ‘that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement’.

As regards the Palestinian desire to focus on borders first during the current negotiations, Livni told Israel Radio that the goal is to end the conflict and it cannot be ended by just setting borders. This line of reasoning was against the expressed view of senior retired Israeli security officials like Amos Yadlin (a former chief of military intelligence) that a ‘border is the best security arrangement’.

Prospects of a solution will hinge on the ability of the two sides to moderate their maximalist positions (on settlements and refugees), the ability of the Netanyahu government and Abbas to either get each other’s hardliners on board or effectively sideline them (including on such issues as the Israeli Right’s insistence on ‘Eretz Israel/Greater Israel, Hamas’s willingness to give up the provisions of its charter calling for destruction of the Jewish state) and the ability of the Obama administration to play the role of an ‘honest broker’.

Securing domestic political support for an agreement will also be crucial. Israel’s 2010 ‘referendum law’ (which is being made into a ‘Basic Law’ by the Netanyahu government to ensure that it cannot be challenged by courts or can only be overturned by a majority of 61 Knesset members) requires that any decision that involves giving up Israeli sovereign territories (in Golan Heights or East Jerusalem which Israel annexed but does not relate to the West Bank) will need to be approved by two-thirds of Knesset members or by a public referendum.

Among encouraging drivers that could help smoothen the process include public opinion polls which show that there is still strong support for a two-state solution among the Israelis. Both Netanyahu and Abbas are also battling legacy issues. While the former is into his third term, time is not on the side of Abbas at 78 years. It is in the interest of both players therefore to fashion a settlement.

Regional dynamics could also impact on the on-going process. A resolution of the Palestinian question could help Israel focus exclusively on the Iranian nuclear issue, which the Netanyahu government insists is an existential threat. While the Syrian instability has added to Israel’s anxieties, developments in Egypt in the aftermath of the overthrow of President Morsi’s government (which was a strong backer of Hamas) have clearly enhanced the political weight of the PA. The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks though have not made much progress while Gaza-based senior figures of the Hamas continue to insist that they will not accept the outcome of the negotiations.

The PA’s stance on statehood at the forthcoming UNGA in September 2013 will be an interesting barometer as to the direction of the talks. The ability of both sides to focus on the end goal (Palestinian statehood) while negotiating the potential pitfalls that could bedevil the efforts will determine how soon Palestine could become the 194th state of the UN. An undeniable fact staring both the sides as they try to come to grips with the contentions is that it is in each other’s strategic interests to make the pragmatic choices (or concessions by another name) to realize the goal of a Palestinian state sooner than later.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.