Encountering Peace: Making decisions

US Secretary of State John Kerry is coming back to Israel today after months of intensive work with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on finding the mechanism to formally renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

June 26, 2013 21:41
4 minute read.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, May 31, 2013.

John Kerry 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

US Secretary of State John Kerry is coming back to Israel today after months of intensive work with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on finding the mechanism to formally renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Kerry and his team have invested hundreds of hours in thinking, planning, prodding, and determining how the United States of America can get the two parties to do what is in their best national security interests. Let’s face it, if the negotiations do get renewed, Netanyahu and Abbas will not be doing a favor for Obama or Kerry or for the American people, they will be doing it because that is what national leadership demands from them for their own people.

Kerry is expecting to get positive answers from Netanyahu and Abbas today, or in the next few days, and would like to conclude his visit with the announcement of a trilateral meeting of himself with Netanyahu and Abbas, and the beginning of negotiations.

It may happen on this trip, but it may take another visit and more intensive pressure to make it happen.

Abbas has demanded that prior to entering new negotiations, Israel should implement its obligations and commitments under the road map – namely freezing settlements.

Abbas, under public pressure, also demanded that Israel indicate its understanding that the delineation of borders between the two states will be based on the “green line,” the pre-June 5, 1967, border, and that Israel release the pre-Oslo prisoners he claims Olmert agreed to release before changing his mind.

Netanyahu has rejected these preconditions as unacceptable.

Israel indicated that once at the table Abbas would be welcome to make all his demands and requests as part and parcel of the negotiations. But if Abbas comes into the room without getting his demands in advance, how will he face his own public, which agrees with his preconditions? It appears Kerry has found the formula that apparently enables Abbas to state that the Palestinians will enter negotiations without preconditions for a limited time, to assess the degree to which Netanyahu is serious about reaching an agreement. At the same time, at least according to rumors, Netanyahu has apparently agreed to release pre-Oslo prisoners during Ramadan, which is a common practice both in Israel and across the Islamic world, as a means of creating a more positive atmosphere for the negotiations.

Kerry has applied pressure on both sides, and it seems to have worked. President Barack Obama, it appears, gave his full backing to his secretary of state and removed any doubts regarding the degree of presidential support behind Kerry’s initiative. Obama let it be known that Kerry is speaking for the president and on his behalf.

The pressure seems to be working. Without getting Israeli pre-acceptance of the idea that the 1967 border is the basis for discussion, it seems Kerry may have taken it upon himself to assure the Palestinians that US supports this position.

It is clear that the two leaders are actually afraid to enter the process. Negotiating is not the problem; it has never been the problem. The difficulty is making decisions.

That is what deters them from beginning. Sharing Jerusalem as an open city with two sovereignties in its borders, refugee return to the Palestinian state and not to Israel, freezing the state quo on the Temple Mount whereby the Muslims control the mosques on top and Israel controls the Western Wall, security measures including a demilitarized Palestinian state, joint forces on the Jordan river, continued cooperation on fighting terror, removing settlements, allowing Jews to live in the Palestinian state, removing incitement and education to hate, changing textbooks – these are just a few of the tough decisions they will have to make to reach an agreement which formally ends the conflict.

Both leaders are quite aware of the opposition from within their own respective camps. Netanyahu has to face not only his coalition partners, but characters within his own Likud party – perhaps even a majority of Likud MKs will be against any real concessions to the Palestinians. Abbas, too, has his own opposition at home within Fatah, without even considering how Hamas will try to derail any agreement.

Nonetheless, if the leaders were able to bring home a package deal on all of the issues, ending the conflict, they will receive around 65 percent support among their publics for that agreement. Even if the Israeli government coalition collapsed instantly, I have counted 70 votes in the Knesset for an agreement. I have even counted 61 Jewish votes in the Knesset for an agreement.

It takes vision, courage and a sense of rising to the historical moment which faces them to exploit the opportunity that Kerry has placed at the doorway of the two leaders. If they go the distance, make the hard decisions, stick to the negotiations, refuse to accept “no” for an answer, continue to propose bridging proposals rather than putting on the table “take it or leave it” notions, success is possible.

Abbas, the last Palestinian leader who was among the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement, and Netanyahu, the leader of the right wing in Israel, are the two best possible leaders to bring peace to their people. If they are both committed to that goal, they can ensure that the outcome will be a comprehensive, full peace and end-of-conflict agreement. Both leaders have so much more to gain from their success than from their failure. History beacons, the future is calling.

The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book, Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew.

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