Crunch time is fast approaching in the Israeli- Palestinian talks.
Back in November, when the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators hit a brick wall in the negotiations and called on the US to step in and try to bridge the gaps, US Secretary of State John Kerry began working on his much-discussed framework document, which is to serve as the basis for continued talks between the sides.
In December, there was some talk that this document would be ready by the end of the year. When the new year came, however, and no document emerged, the expectation – one reinforced by Kerry’s intensive shuttle diplomacy – was that it would be presented by the end of January. That date, too, came and passed, but still with no paper. Now, the conventional wisdom is that the paper must be presented at least by the end of April, the end of the nine-month period that Kerry originally set as the deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement.
But one day looms extremely large between now and the end of April, and it is likely to be the date that turns into what is known in diplomatic parlance as a “forcing event,” an event that dictates that some action must be taken.
The date is March 28, when Israel is scheduled to release a final tranche of 26 additional Palestinian terrorists, according to the agreement reached with the Palestinians in July of last year that enabled the current round of talks. Under that agreement, Israel was to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in four different phases.
Each of the previous three prisoner releases – in August, October and December – triggered an angry public outcry as the names of the terrorists , and details of their crimes, were made public. The upcoming tranche is expected to cause an even greater outcry, since the Palestinians are demanding that among the terrorists released will be Israeli Arabs.
When the cabinet voted 13-7 with two abstentions in July to release the terrorists in order to move into the negotiations, there was a stipulation that while a committee of five ministers would be empowered to come up with the names for each batch, if Israeli Arabs were on the list it would have to come back to the cabinet for its full approval.
Which is why March 28 will likely force the framework deal on the table.
If there is no document by that date, it is difficult to believe that the cabinet would approve the release of any Israeli- Arab prisoners. If there is a document that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu feels he can live with, with certain reservations, then he will likely be able to convince his ministers, and the public, that this is a horrible price to pay, but one worth paying to ensure a continuation of the talks.
This is exactly what he did in July, when he explained his decision to okay the release of terrorists by saying that such a move was necessary for Israel to enter a diplomatic process and “exhaust the chances of ending the conflict with the Palestinians, and in order to establish Israel’s position in the complex international reality around us.” If a framework deal is on the table, expect him to use similar language and arguments to continue the talks, even at the price of letting Israeli-Arab terrorists go free.
But if there is not a framework document on the table, and it does not seem that there will be one anytime soon, it will be virtually impossible for Netanyahu to sell the release of Israeli Arabs, or – for that matter – the release of any more terrorists. And without the release of Israeli Arabs in the deal, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will likely walk away from the talks. Thus does March 28 become such a key deadline.
Before March 28, however, there are a couple other significant dates to keep in mind: The first is this coming Monday, when Netanyahu will meet in Washington for the 14th time with US President Barack Obama, the most Obama has met with any foreign leader.
According to The New York Times report on Thursday, Obama’s advisers said the president was now poised to once again take a hands-on role in the diplomatic process, something he has avoided for some time, content to instead let Kerry carry the ball. Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu is expected to be followed shortly by a White House meeting with Abbas.
Following Netanyahu’s trip, and Abbas’s visit to Washington, it is safe to assume that Kerry himself will spend the second and third weeks of March back in the region, once again engaging here in the type of shuttle diplomacy he undertook at various key points in the process over the last 10 months.
Obama himself, coincidentally, will be in the region at about the same time, expected to visit Saudi Arabia in the last week of March. If he does indeed intend to plunge once again head-first into the issue, that visit at that time will give him ample opportunity. While no one is officially entertaining the idea that while in the region, he may participate in a summit with Abbas and Netanyahu if need be to seal a deal on the framework document, the notion is not completely far-fetched.
One question that has proven puzzling since the Americans significantly lowered the bar, and went from aiming for a comprehensive agreement in April to merely sufficing with a document that would enable further talks, is why even that document is taking so long to deliver.
If, as is widely assumed, this will be a US paper detailing what Washington believes is a fair balance between what both sides feel they need and are able to give, then why the delay in releasing it? This question is even more pertinent if, again as is widely believed, neither side will be expected to accept the document handsdown, but rather will be able amend to it various reservations.
If it’s an American paper, with American ideas, then why not just release it already and let the sides haggle over it once it has been born? Part of the reason for the delay has to do with the way Kerry operates. Kerry, nearly three decades a senator, is a champion listener, believing in the need to hear the sides out, explore various ideas and look for various ways to narrow differences where possible. The one thing he does not want to do is present a paper that one side or the other will say is unfair and cannot be a starting point for further talks. And that, apparently, is proving more difficult than he originally imagined.
And, as the March 28 deadline looms, that job is getting even more difficult, because the entire exercise has now moved from merely talking about concepts such as borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees and mutual recognition, to actually having to put concrete ideas on those matters down on paper. And when that happens, and lawyers on all sides are involved, the haggling gets even more difficult, with every word carefully considered, debated and contested.
And all this, it must be remembered, only to get to a framework document.
Back in the summer, when Kerry was nudging both sides into the negotiating room, he was wont to quote Quartet envoy Tony Blair as telling him once that launching the talks was the “hardest part.”
After using that remark in a number of speeches last year, it is a comment Kerry has apparently now taken out of his repertoire.
Getting the sides to talk is – granted – difficult; but it is not the hardest part. Getting them to agree on anything is the hardest part, which is why the Americans had to step into the fray in November. And now that they are very much in the middle of the fray, the approach Kerry has adopted is to take the very wide differences and slowly shave them down, and funnel them down to a cone-like point.
An illustration of how this works in practice is the idea of a settlement freeze. Earlier this month, there were some reports that the Americans were going to press Israel to freeze settlement construction in the isolated settlements beyond the settlement blocs. Automatically, many assumed that what the US would demand was a public declaration of a freeze.
But where is it written that this must be the paradigm? If the US presents a framework paper agreed upon by both sides which states that a future agreement will be based upon two states for two peoples along the contours of the pre-1967 lines, but with mutually agreed land swaps, then an end to construction in areas that won’t be part of those swaps is understood, even if unstated.
That is the US approach. In July, Kerry was able to narrow differences to a degree whereby he was able to get the sides into the room for significant negotiations, something that hadn’t happened in the previous four years. Now he has them talking, albeit through him, of a framework.
If he can get them to agree to the framework, even with their respective reservations, then he would have narrowed the gaps further. The cone would have tapered down, leading to the next stage: negotiating over the details.
And that stage, as now even the ever-energetic and hopeful Kerry realizes as well as anyone else, will truly be “the hardest part.”