In a bid to save faltering peace negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry changed his itinerary in Europe on Monday and rushed to the region to meet with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. It was the second time in a week.
The sides – under American mediation – are on the brink of parting ways, unless Kerry can find a way to reach an understanding that would get the PLO to extend talks past the April 29 deadline.
This understanding would not be the proposed framework document that Kerry and State Department officials have struggled to word in a way that both Israelis and Palestinians could sign off on. That has proved impossible.
Palestinians have refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, one of the conditions the government has insisted must be included in the framework document.
Palestinians have also rejected an Israeli request for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley after a Palestinian state is created.
For its part, Israel is rightly averse to releasing the fourth and arguably most despicable batch of 26 terrorists from Israeli prisons if in less than a month negotiations will fall apart anyway. These are prisoners responsible for hideous murders of women and children as well as male civilians and off-duty soldiers.
Is there, nevertheless, a way forward? There might be according to Dr. Khalil Shikaki, head of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, who shared his thoughts on the negotiations with foreign journalists at the Jerusalem Press Club on Tuesday.
Shikaki, who has conducted dozens of opinion polls in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip over the past two decades, is probably better connected to Palestinian public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than anyone else. And he says that because the sides are so far apart on so many issues, there is next to no chance that negotiations will lead to a peace agreement. It will not happen by April 29 and it will not happen at the end of another nine-month period if Kerry manages to wrangle one out of the sides.
Nevertheless, if negotiations were extended for another nine months and during that period Israel were to take steps to make Palestinians’ lives easier, a certain level of trust could be built between the sides.
This would not be an interim agreement or any other kind of formalized contract. Rather, Israel would simply begin to give Palestinians more control in certain areas of Area C of the West Bank (under full Israeli control under the Oslo Accords) so they could complete the construction of sewage treatment plants (Friends of the Earth Middle East’s Israeli director says that about 70 water and sanitation projects beneficial to Palestinians but also to Israelis are being held up due in large part to Israeli unwillingness to cooperate); Palestinian businessmen would be allowed easier access to Israel’s sea ports, airports and Jerusalem; crossing to Jordan and back could be made less of a hassle; overall mobility on the West Bank could be improved by building highways that link Palestinian cities; and we might even consider allowing Palestinians to build residential and commercial projects in the Jordan Valley.
Right-wing politicians in our government would support many of these measures – not because they favor the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state, but because they realize that improving the lives of Palestinians is integral to the success of a onestate solution.
Meanwhile, Palestinians’ day-to-day lives would be made easier. This might not lead to a greater willingness on the part of Palestinians to compromise, says Shikaki, but it could improve Israeli-Palestinian relations and prevent a meltdown scenario where the Palestinian Authority loses control on the West Bank.
Moving ahead with on-the-ground reforms depends on our prime minister and the government he heads making a conscious decision not just to talk about improving the lives of Palestinians but to take concrete steps in that direction.