Can Kerry Finish What Oslo Started?

New Israeli-Palestinian talks began this summer under a cloud of skepticism

John Kerry has been to the region six times since becoming Secretary of State (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

In January 2001, mere months into the second Palestinian intifada that followed the collapse of the Camp David peace talks, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said: “In a few years, we will bury our hundreds of dead, and they will bury their thousands of dead, and we will go back to the negotiating table, and we will face the same issues.”

More than 12 years later, those words still reverberate across hardening political positions on both sides, as Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to renew peace efforts over the summer. The political shift among both Israelis and Palestinians away from parties favoring compromise, and the changing geographic and demographic facts on the ground have made resolving those issues even more difficult than when Barak and Yasser Arafat tried and failed. And the coups and revolutions that continue to roil the Arab world have made the regional climate less conducive to reinforcing a peace deal than it had been two decades ago.

“We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Kerry announced in July. Talks began July 30 in Washington DC, and continued over the summer over meetings in Jerusalem and Jericho. They are the first public face-to-face encounters between negotiators from the two sides since a short-lived round of talks collapsed in 2010.

Since then, both sides have found issues to complain to Kerry about: the Palestinians claimed Washington had guaranteed the basis for any negotiations would be the 1967 lines that demarcate Israel from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – a claim U.S. officials have denied. The Israelis complain that the Palestinians have leaked details of the discussions, counter to directives from Washington.

The “final-status” issues which Kerry referred to are the familiar tableaux of intractable issues deferred by the 1993 Oslo Accords that first set the peace process in motion. These were to have been resolved at Camp David in 2000: the status of Jerusalem, the plight of Palestinian refugees, and the borders that would define a two-state solution to the conflict. But that summit failed.

Kerry’s process has presented domestic political challenges for both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade his cabinet, and argued in a text message to reporters that agreeing to release retirement-aged Palestinians imprisoned before the Oslo accords saved him having to commit to any preconditions to renew talks.

Palestinians had previously insisted that negotiations be based on the 1967 boundaries, and a halt to construction in Israeli settlements outside the ’67 lines. The Israelis had demanded an unconditional renewal of talks, and Netanyahu has publicly rejected the Palestinian preconditions, citing them as reason to blame Abbas for the lack of negotiations in recent years. But the Palestinian leadership points to two decades of failed talks, and insists that their preconditions are a litmus test of Israeli seriousness about reaching a deal acceptable to Palestinians.

While all the attention has been on the fact that the two sides are finally even meeting with each other for the first time in years, David Makovsky from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues the real work hasn’t even begun. “The tough decisions on the terms of peace itself all lie ahead,” he says. Indeed, the key question is not whether the two sides are willing to talk to one another, but whether they can bridge their differences on the final-status issues.

Israel’s political median has shifted steadily to the right since the Oslo era, and some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners vociferously reject the Palestinians’ terms for renewed talks. Economics Minister and leader of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett insisted that construction on settlements in the West Bank should continue. “With the launching of negotiations, we will insist on the continuation of normal life, and a continuation of construction in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria,” Israel’s Channel 7 reported Bennett as saying, using an Israeli term for the West Bank. “History has taught us that construction brings life, and the eviction of communities brings terror.” Although Israeli settlements outside the 1967 borders are deemed by the U.N. to violate international law, the Obama Administration in 2011 quietly abandoned its attempts to persuade Israel to freeze settlement construction in order to restart peace talks.

Some of Netanyahu’s allies even question the purpose of trying to restart final-status talks. Likud coalition member Avidgor Lieberman declared on Facebook that there was “no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in the coming years, and what’s possible and important to do is conflict-management.”

Despite such objections, however, domestic politics may not prevent Netanyahu from restarting talks, according to Bret Sasley, who teaches Middle East and Israeli politics at the University of Texas at Arlington. He recently wrote that Israel is likely to move forward with the talks because the naysayers in Netanyahu’s governing coalition stand to lose more by deserting him than by staying in power.

According to public opinion, Israelis also show majority support for the peace talks and a final settlement. “The monthly Peace Index of the Israel Democracy Institute finds support for negotiations over the last several years to be consistently over 50 percent, usually over 60 percent,” Sasley writes, “and sometimes reaching 70 percent. At the same time, public opinion in Israel has historically followed leaders’ efforts when they’ve pushed major decisions on war and peace.”

But whether Netanyahu himself is willing to offer a deal acceptable to his Palestinian counterpart on the core issues is far from clear.

Palestinian domestic politics, also, are far less conducive to a compromise with Israel today than they were at the time of Camp David. The Palestinian Authority has not held elections since Hamas, the Islamist movement that opposes the Oslo Accords, won the 2006 legislative poll. Hamas issued a statement on the website of its military wing calling the Palestinian Authority’s decision to resume talks a “betrayal” and insisting that Abbas has no mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. “There’s nothing new in Kerry’s latest peace proposals,” said Dr Yousef Rizqa, a political adviser for Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas administration’s leader.

Abbas even seemed to have a tough time selling a resumption of negotiations to his own supporters. A recent meeting of the Palestinian political factions in Ramallah left leaders unsatisfied with the Palestinians’ opening position, although the news that Netanyahu has committed to the prisoner release could help soften opposition somewhat.

“Many expressed disappointment, saying the plan failed to address long-standing demands that Israel halt all settlement construction on land it seized in 1967 and accept the pre-1967 lines as the bases for future border talks,” the Los Angeles Times reported, adding that they were still reluctant however to “reject the plan outright for fear of alienating America’s top diplomat”.

Khalid Elgindy, a one-time member of the Palestinian negotiating team, questioned how the new initiative differed from previous stillborn efforts. “Notwithstanding Kerry’s deep personal commitment to a resolution and intimate knowledge of the issues, the current approach does not fundamentally deviate from those of his predecessors,” Elgindy wrote in Foreign Policy. “Since the parties are free to accept or reject the ‘agreed’ bases for negotiations, getting back to the negotiating table is still in many ways viewed as an end unto itself. In addition, major structural obstacles that remain could easily derail or at least paralyze the current process.”

Partly in order to assuage domestic critics, both Netanyahu and Abbas have promised to put any deals they potentially negotiate to a referendum vote. But, argues Yossi Beilin, a key architect of the Oslo Accords, a deal acceptable to both electorates may be a bridge too far. And instead of playing another “blame game,” he urged all parties to sign onto an interim agreement.

Beilin – who fears that Netanyahu may simply than stall for time, at least until after September and possible moves by the Palestinian Authority to renew its quest for statehood at the U.N. General Assembly – suggests that Abbas accept an interim agreement that would include a vision and time table for permanent agreement, invoking past examples.

“[Menachem] Begin gave up on the Sinai in order to keep the West Bank and Gaza,” Beilin writes. “[Ariel] Sharon left Gaza to retain the West Bank, and Netanyahu has in principle agreed to a Palestinian state in order to preserve lands that have not yet been transferred to Palestinians. Change may be slow, but it is certain.”

And many Palestinians remain unconvinced by mere talk. “It is very dangerous for the Palestinian people to resume negotiations without a written commitment by Israel to freeze settlement-building and to recognize the 1967 lines as a start of agreement, said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “I am afraid Israelis will use negotiations as a cover for continuing to build settlements and land confiscation, so I think that we will face another failure and it will be a never-ending story.”

While Kerry leads the charge for the Obama administration, the White House remains prudent. “As for our level of optimism, it is very cautious optimism, because this is such a hard challenge,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, adding that the U.S. is “obligated to engage” in the talks. “This is an issue that has been a very difficult one for years and years and years.”

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