Pay attention to a recent Mideast document put out by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, a Western diplomat advised this week. That document, he said, is guiding US Secretary of State John Kerry.
This was one piece of the diplomat’s learned advice. The other was to take note of Quartet envoy Tony Blair, who he said was playing a huge behind-the-scenes role in Kerry’s intensive efforts to restart Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.
While Blair is in charge of the massive, $4 billion economic package
to the Palestinian Authority, whose details are expected to be made known if and when negotiations are relaunched, his role goes way beyond an economic one.
This was confirmed by an Israeli official, who said Blair “punches above his weight,” and that it would be “wrong to say he is being confined to the economic side.”
European officials said last week that Blair was crucial in convincing EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton of the need for the EU foreign ministers to refrain from issuing a statement following their meeting in June.
According to this argument, a statement – such as one that was being considered – highly critical of Israel at that time would have sent the wrong message to the Palestinians. It would have signaled that they did not have to cooperate with Kerry’s efforts and join the negotiations, since the EU would “bail them out” and place the blame on Israel. The statement was not issued.
Without willing to go into details, the Western diplomat added that Blair hoped – through his colossal economic development plan for the PA that would also benefit Israel – to present an economic sweetener that would be impossible to refuse.
“What he is trying to do is provide incentives that will make it impossible to oppose the deal, except if you are opposed to a two-state solution on ideological grounds,” he explained.
That is on the economic side. On the political side – and it is all interrelated – very little substantive information has emerged regarding what exactly Kerry is trying to do, what is holding up his efforts, and what in fact he talked about for over 20 hours in six meetings last weekend – three each with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – in Jerusalem, Amman and Ramallah.Kerry set the tone
for the paucity of information that has emerged, telling a press conference before departing Sunday afternoon for Brunei that “when and if we get to those negotiations, which I hope we will get to, we are committed not to talk about what we’re doing, because that’s the way we’re going to be able to really work seriously.”
And that rule, for the most part, has been adhered to, though certain details have inevitably leaked out.
Among those details are disagreements about how many Palestinian prisoners Israel would be willing to release as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinians to get them back to the talks, and at what pace. The Palestinians want the upfront release of 123 prisoners incarcerated before the Oslo Accords; Netanyahu is willing to free 60 in three phases.
Netanyahu is eager to phase the release to ensure that the Palestinians don’t come to the table, get the prisoners, and then – as happened in 2010 and in lower-level talks in Jordan in 2012 – walk away.
Deep disagreement exists regarding how to reference the pre-1967 lines, which the Palestinians want to use as the starting point for talks, and which Netanyahu is adamantly opposed to because of his belief that those lines are indefensible and should not be used as a baseline.
Various formulas have been raised regarding this issue as well, including mentioning the pre-1967 lines in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that the US will draw up separately with the Palestinians, while discussing US security guarantees to Israel in the parallel MOU that will be agreed upon with Israel.
And, of course, there is the settlement issue.
One idea that has been floated is that in exchange for Israeli flexibility on the prisoner and pre-1967 lines issues, Abbas would agree to enter the talks in absence of a total settlement construction freeze, and suffice with a freeze beyond the security barrier.
This could then be interpreted as implicit Palestinian acquiescence to Israel’s right to hold on to the settlement blocs.
And here is where the Baker Institute document can be instructive, because it gives an indication – according to the Western diplomat – of the direction Kerry is going, both structurally and substantively.
For instance, its formula on territories is for the sides to agree that the “quantity of territory included in the West Bank, Gaza and Dead Sea territorial waters as defined by the [pre-]1967 lines will equal the amount of territory of the Palestinian state, following land swaps with Israel equal in size and value.”
How much land, in this formula, is more important than where that land is, as long it is of “equal value.” That formula could provide space for the settlement blocs.
The idea behind this formula is to bridge the Palestinian demand for a full withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, lines and Israel’s insistence that it will not return to what Abba Eban famously referred to as “Auschwitz borders.”
The paper, published in March by the institute named after former US secretary of state Baker, is called “Re-engaging the Israelis and the Palestinians: Why an American Role in Initiating Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations is Necessary and How It Can Be Accomplished.”
It is the product of working groups of experts led by Baker Institute fellows Yair Hirschfeld, a University of Haifa lecturer and one of the architects of the Oslo accords, and Samih al-Abid, a Palestinian participant in the Camp David, Taba and Annapolis negotiations.
Former ambassador to Israel and Syria Edward P. Djerejian wrote the forward.
The document both lays out logistical recommendations for how best to get into and conduct the negotiations, as well as provides an answer that was on many people’s minds during Kerry’s visit here this week. With Syria imploding, Egypt in the throes of a coup, Iran still spinning its centrifuges to nuclear capability, why is Kerry devoting so much time and energy to this issue at this time? Or, as The New York Times tellingly put it in a headline this week, “Chaos in Middle East Grows as the US Focuses on Israel.”
“Proactive US engagement is the only policy option that has the potential of creating a realistic policy trajectory of peace and stability-building in the Middle East and reestablishing US leadership in the region,” the Baker document read.
In other words, with the rest of the region wildly out of control and the US in a very reactive mode, this is the only area where it can be proactive, and by being proactive reassert leadership in the region.
According to the paper, and an approach seemingly adopted by Kerry, US peacemaking efforts can “reshape and redefine the US relations with peoples and states in the region” during a time of tremendous transformation.
By demonstrating a firm commitment to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the US – according to the document – “can remove a key obstacle to close relations to the countries in the region.”
Concerning Iran, the paper maintains that a robust American position on the conflict will deprive the Iranian leadership of attempting “to exploit the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to divide the more moderate, anti-nuclear weapon camp within Iran.
“A long-term US strategy, including engagement in comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace and stability building, will facilitate the necessary international and regional engagement addressing the Iranian issue.”
In other words, this approach jettisons the argument that the US cannot “want peace more than the sides do,” and advocates full-bodied diplomacy even if the sides don’t want it, because it is necessary to improve the US’s standing in the region. Or more simply put, show you are trying to solve this problem and you win all kinds of friends in the neighborhood.
If this document does indeed reflect the thinking behind Kerry’s efforts, then it makes short shrift of the pop-psychology explanations of Kerry’s frenetic efforts: that he is searching for his legacy in the waning years of his career; that this is an expression of boundless political vanity; that he can head full force into this issue and risk failure because, unlike his predecessor Hillary Clinton, he no longer has presidential aspirations.
Rather, according to this school of thought, Kerry is tackling this not only because of a belief in the two-state solution and a concern that the lack of any movement could lead to another outburst of violence here, but rather because by leading vigorously on this issue the US will be able to regain leadership and prestige in a region in turmoil.
The paper is also instructive because it gives insight into the structure and logistics of what Kerry seems to have in mind.
There was much talk when Kerry was here last week of the restarting of negotiations being announced at a four-way summit – involving Israel, the Palestinians, US and Jordan – in Amman.
That dovetails well with what the paper talked about: the announcement of terms of reference for the negotiations that would “include the principles for the end game and modalities to support the negotiations.”
In parallel, separate MOUs would be signed between the US and each of the sides that would spell out American commitments.
Here, for instance, the US could reference the pre-1967 lines in its MOU with the Palestinians, and talk about security guarantees in the documents signed with Israel.
The Baker paper also advocated the adoption of some different negotiating principles this time, first and foremost the idea – which one Western diplomat said was currently being discussed – that “what is agreed upon is implemented.”
This principle is the direct opposite of the approach taken in the past: that nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon. The idea behind immediately implementing agreed-upon steps is, as the Baker paper put it, to “transform the economic, social, and security environment on the ground while working concurrently to achieve breakthroughs on permanent status issues.”
In other words, create visible, positive momentum on the ground that people can see, which – at least in theory – could create an incentive for the sides to crack the hard nut issues: such as Jerusalem and the refugees.
At least in theory.