After John Kerry was appointed Secretary of State, he made the Middle East Peace Process his personal mission. Post the President’s visit, John Kerry has visited Israel and Palestine 5 times trying to get the parties back to the negotiating table. Below is a short review of what Kerry has achieved and where the sticking points have been in trying to get the negotiations back on track*.
It was clear from the start that Kerry wanted to use Jordan as an additional mediator in the eventual negotiations and use the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative as the regional support for the talks themselves. In this way he could avoid the mistakes of the 2000 Camp David accords. Starting off on his first trip he listened to the demands of each side and quickly got a ‘negotiation’ deposit from each. Israel would release the tax revenues to the PA and in return the PA would not go to the ICC or the UN. Abbas gave Kerry a three month guarantee on this (the time running out somewhere in mid-June.) In addition he negotiated with the Arab League to accept small border swaps to the API’s language.
Over the next few visits Kerry clarified the various demands of each party and split the negotiations into three tracks. The political he took full control over. Economically he has put together a $4 billion incentive package to help build Palestine through the private sector and has asked Tony Blair to lead. On the security track he has appointed General Allen to work with the Israelis on their concerns with the hope of answering many of them and, ultimately, taking them off the negotiation table.
So far the leaks seem to indicate that General Allen is getting a cold shoulder from the Israelis who are distrustful of international peace keeping forces. Meanwhile, at the World Economic Forum in Jordan Kerry revealed that there was an economic track in place but has not revealed any additional information apart from the $4 billion price tag.
On the political track Netanyahu has maintained that he is willing to negotiate without any pre-conditions, though he has indicated that the conflict is around the Palestinians accepting Israel as a Jewish State. Abbas has laid out three conditions to rejoin the talks:
- A settlement freeze
- Release of the Pre-Oslo Prisoners (approx. 120)
- Netanyahu to accept that the 67 borders form the starting point for the discussion (or for Netanyahu to present a map)
On Kerry’s last visit to the region (end of June) he spent three days trying to hammer out a compromise position from each party on these issues in order to get the talks started in Amman. Abbas has agreed to hold off with international moves until September, but each party is keen to produce some progress by the start of Ramadan (July 8th) where a prisoner release would be significant.
Abbas was demanding that all 120 prisoners be released at the launch of the talks. In return he would accept a full settlement freeze outside the ‘blocs’ and a partial freeze inside the blocs and East Jerusalem. He would also accept John Kerry’s commitment to the ‘67 lines being the basis rather than Netanyahu making the commitment.
Netanyahu agreed to all of the above it seems except the number of prisoners to be released. He feared that if he were to release all 120 upfront there would be nothing to keep the Palestinians from abandoning the talks and going to the UN in September anyway. Over three days the number the US negotiators managed to get Netanyahu to was 60, of which 20 would be released at the start of the talks, the other forty during.
Abbas rejected this and said that if there were not 120 then he would need a full settlement freeze and Netanyahu to personally accept the ‘67 lines. He feared he would look weak and compromising with only a minibus of 20 prisoners to Hamas’s 1000 prisoners that were freed in exchange for Gilad Schalit. Netanyahu responded saying that if he was going to say ‘67 lines that Abbas would have to accept all of the Israeli security arrangements as is, including a long term military arrangement in the Jordan valley at the start of the process.
Kerry did not manage to break through this Gordian knot and has left two of his advisors in the region to see if they can fashion together a bridging proposal to get the talks started. In general it seems that the Palestinians are very clear with Kerry about pre-conditions and their final positions on all the key issues. Israel is focused on incentive packages to get the negotiations started and some vague language around the different issues. They are refusing to negotiate outside the negotiations themselves.
After all of his efforts remains totally unclear whether, even if the parties do agree to negotiations, a zone of possible agreement actually exists.
*This information is correct as of July 1st 2013 and is based off public forms of information.
Kerry announced that he had managed to get an agreement on the basis to have talks. Rather then having Bibi and Abbas speak to each other directly, Livni and Erekat will lead each team meeting in Washington DC this week with the hope of an announcement to follow.
Kerry has insisted on upmost secrecy in these talks so it is hard to work out what has been agreed and what has not. What we know so far is that Israel has agreed to release prisoners. The figure 350 is being pushed around and that all the pre Olso prisoners who are not Israeli Citizens will be released. Some of these prisoners will be released at the start of the talks and the rest in stages.
It is unclear if the Linvi Erekat talks are the talks themselves, or if they are talks to lead to more talks. Martin Indyk has been tapped to lead the talks as envoy for the US with both Abbas and Bibi agreeing.
On 67 lines and settlement freeze it seems that Kerry used the two letter system. To the Palestinians he wrote in his invite that the 67 lines would form the basis. To the Israelis he did not write that this would be a framework. To both parties he wrote a technical description of the talks. Within the technical description both parties promised to not make moves that would disrupt the talks (read settlements and international moves). They also agreed that only Kerry and a select few would be authorized to speak on the talks.
The secrecy seems necessary to get the parties on board, yet has led to much confusion on the ground on what has actually been agreed to, with the PLO saying that these are talks before the talks and that these have not been fully agreed to yet while the Israelis are reporting that these are the actual talks. While secrecy is important, the fear will be that rumors can fill the void that can damage the ability of the teams to negotiate. There is no good way to solve this issue.
The EU decree on settlements seems to have allowed Abbas to save face, create a stick for the Israelis and come at the right time to push the parties together. Whether the move was coordinated or a happy coincidence has not been resolved.
It seems that Abbas has staked his own reputation and that of the talks on prisoner releases hoping that getting something tangible will help bring public support for the talks. For Bibi it was the best of all bad options.
We wait to see when talks start in DC and if these will be able to make progress in order to have Bibi and Abbas in the same room. The timeframe people are looking at is between 6-9 months.
I will continue to update this post as things contiune.
The State department announced the preliminary talks to take place tonight between Livni, Molho (Bibi’s personal envoy) and Erekat and Shatyyeh. The hope is that by Tuesday there will be an announcement of the frames of the talks to last around 9 months.
The talks started after Bibi convinced his cabinet to release all of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners. In an unpopular move Bibi won the cabinet vote with the prisoners being released in 4 stages.Most controversial were the Arab citizens of Israel and the Jerusalem residents who were on the agreed list. Many balked at the PA dictating terms for Israel’s own citizens.
A comprise deal was put on the table where all the Arab Citizens of Israel and Jerusalem residents would be in the last round of releases. Bibi, Boogie, Livni, Piron and Aaronovitch make up a 5 member committee that will over see this process.
Bibi also fast tracked a referendum law that would mean that any peace deal would be subject to a popular vote.
In Ramallah there were small demonstrations against the return to negotiations.
Martin Indyk was named today as the special envoy for the talks.
The first joint press conference between Livni, Erekat and Kerry happened following a dinner, a meeting with Obama and Biden and some more talks.
Kerry announced that there will be a 9 month process where everything will be on the table – all final status issues and all core issues. The next round of talks will happen in two weeks in either Israel of the West Bank. In the coming days Israel will ease conditions in West Bank and Gaza. Kerry is the only person authorized to speak about the talks – he urged everyone not to believe any thing that he does not say – and he stressed he would be saying little.
He also mentioned that the Quartet econ track would continue alongside as would General Allen’s security track with the Israelis. He stressed the mutually beneficial things that can come from reasonable principled compromises.
He finished by saying that there is no alternative to 2 States and that time was running out to get there.
Erekat made a short statement thanking the US and stating that no one benefits more from a deal then Palestinians.
Livni made a slightly longer statement about the sacrifices Israel has made to get to this point and hopes to get to a historic breakthrough.