(photo credit: WASHINGTON INSTITUTE)
During the nine months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that ended in failure in 2014, 62 percent of Israel’s publicly announced tenders for housing beyond the Green Line were earmarked for the 1.9% of West Bank land that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had once consented would remain in Israel’s hands.
David Makovsky, who was a member of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating team during this period, pointed out this little-known fact during a speech Tuesday at a conference on US-Israel relations that took place at Bar- Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Israel was more “geographically cautious” with settlement announcements during the negotiating period than many realize.
“It would have been helpful if that could have been made public,” Makovsky said, explaining that for political reasons that was not a possibility.
This geographic caution was not stated publicly but was the policy.
Announcements of settlement plans during this period were a huge bone of contention, with former US Mideast envoy Martin Indyk, who headed the team Makovsky was a member of, placing much of the blame for the breakdown of the talks on Israel’s settlement policies. He said during a speech last year that “rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations, it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future.”
In 2008 Abbas reportedly turned down an offer by thenprime minister Ehud Olmert for Israel to annex 6.3% of the West Bank to incorporate the major settlement blocs into Israel in exchange for 5.8% of land within Israel and the corridor from the West Bank to Gaza. Abbas reportedly countered with a proposal for a 1.9% land swap, apparently the area where most of the housing tenders were announced during the 2013- 2014 negotiations.
Makovsky, in his first public comments on the negotiations since they broke down more than a year ago, said the premise of the negotiations was to try to reach conceptual agreement on the five core issues, “and then let the technicians come in and talk about the details.”
He defined the core issues as territory (borders), refugees, Jerusalem, security and mutual recognition, which encompassed the issue of recognition of Israel as the Jewish national home.
He said that there was significant progress on two of the issues: territory – meaning the territory that would make up the future Palestinian state – and the refugee issue. Without providing details, he said that “the Palestinians were more flexible on the refugees than most Israelis would believe.”
Makovsky said that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas were “risk averse,” and that because of each side’s political calculations – not wanting to appear domestically as giving too much or raising expectations – “we couldn’t talk about progress.”
As a result, he said, it was difficult to build momentum. He said that the Americans would have liked Abbas to talk about how Netanyahu had taken down security checkpoints, and Israel to praise the security cooperation with the PA , but that neither side was willing to do so.
The leaders didn’t want to raise expectations, because it would have been too costly politically, he maintained.
Makovsky came to the defense of Kerry, his boss at the time, saying that “I feel the history books will be nicer to him than the newspapers.”
Makovsky bemoaned that the Israeli public is largely unaware that Kerry has spoken more to Netanyahu on the phone than any other world leader, and that he was interested in working quietly behind the scenes with the Israelis. All that was noticed, he said, were some public gaffes that were pounced on by the media, which then often drew the wrong conclusions.
“I feel that he has been treated unjustly by the Israeli public,” Makovsky said. “One day the truth will emerge.”