Obama: Israel-PA accord would need transition period

US president tells Saban Forum that he feels "framework" for agreement could be reached over "next several months."

Obama at Saban forum serious 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/James Lawler Dugga)
Obama at Saban forum serious 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/James Lawler Dugga)
An agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would likely be restricted in its initial stages to the West Bank, with the hope that Gazans would see the benefits and bring pressure on their leaders to take part, US President Barack Obama indicated on Saturday.
With the current nine-month negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians at about their halfway point, Obama said – speaking at the Saban Forum in Washington – that he felt a “framework” could be reached over the “next several months.” He said that while it may not “address every single detail, [it] gets us to a point where everybody recognizes that it is better to move forward, than backward.”
When moderator Haim Saban, a major contributor to the Democratic Party, asked about the split between the Palestinians on the West Bank and those in Gaza, Obama said that if a “pathway to peace” could be created that was “initially restricted to the West Bank,” it could serve as a model for Palestinians in Gaza.
If young Gazans see the West Bank flourishing commercially as a result of peace and the lifting of barriers, “that is something the young people of Gaza will want, and the pressure that will be placed for residents of Gaza to experience that same future is something that is going to be overwhelmingly appealing.”
The president, who gave few concrete details of what was happening now in the negotiations, did indicate that any accord would necessitate “some sort of transition period.”
Ultimately, he said, “the Palestinians have to also recognize that there is going to be a transition period, where the Israeli people cannot expect a replica of Gaza in the West Bank. That is unacceptable.”
Obama said that this period will “require some restraint on the part of the Palestinians,” and a realization that “they don’t get everything they want on day one.”
That, he said, “creates some political problems” for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama said that there were not a lot of secrets and surprises during this round of negotiations, and that “we know what the outline of a potential agreement is, and the question then becomes: Are both sides willing to take the very tough political risks involved if their bottom lines are met?” He defined the Palestinian bottom line as a “real and meaningful” state, and Israel’s bottom line as a secure, Jewish state.
He said that much time has been spent by a US security team, headed by retired Gen. John Allen, to “understand from an Israeli perspective what is required for the security of Israel” in a two-state scenario.
“We understand that we can’t dictate to Israel what it needs for its security, but what we have done is try to understand it and see through a consultative process if there are ways, through technology and additional ideas, that we could potentially provide for,” he said.
Allen, Obama said, “has arrived at the conclusion that it is possible to create a two-state solution that preserves Israel’s core security needs. That is his conclusion, but ultimately he is not the decision maker. Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu and the Israeli military and intelligence folks have to make that determination.”
Obama said that Israel’s security “was uppermost on our minds, and that will not change” regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.
“That should not mean you let up on your vigilance in terms of wanting to look out for your own country, but it should give you some comfort though, that you have the most powerful nation on earth as your closest friend and ally, and that commitment is going to be undiminished,” he said.
The security ideas that are being discussed include Israeli security control over the Jordan River for the foreseeable future, with joint Israeli-Palestinian control over the border crossings.
The plan calls for the use of drones and other technological devices to provide immediate warnings of hostile activity along the border and to monitor the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state.
Obama’s remarks came just a day after US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest stab at shuttle diplomacy, meeting Thursday and Friday three times with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and once with Abbas in Ramallah. He is expected to return to the region by the end of the month to try and keep Israeli-Palestinian talks moving forward.
“I believe we are closer than we have been in years to bringing about the peace and the prosperity and the security that all of the people of this region deserve and yearn for,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s optimism, however, was not shared by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said at the Saban Forum on Friday that he was not sure it was possible to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians and to reach even an interim agreement.
The differences are deep, he said, adding that it is not only about border or security, but also about trust.
“Without trust and credibility, it is mission impossible,” he said.
As an example of the factors making the task difficult, Liberman said that Abbas “does not represent the people of Gaza, and I’m not sure he has a majority in Judea and Samaria.”
At the same time, Liberman – who is scheduled to meet Kerry in Washington on Sunday – said it is important for the dialogue to continue.
“Even if you don’t resolve the conflict, it is very important to manage the conflict, and to maintain these very, very fragile relations, and I really appreciate all the efforts of Secretary Kerry to keep this process alive,” he said.
While saying that he did not think it was possible this year or the next to achieve a comprehensive solution or breakthrough, “I think it is crucial to keep our dialogue” and “think about coexistence.”
Liberman warned against creating “a lot of expectations, because if you create expectations and do not succeed, you have disappointment and frustration, and after that you have violence.”
Kerry, speaking on Friday at Ben-Gurion Airport just before heading home, did speak of progress, however, saying, “we have gone through a very detailed, lengthy, in-depth analysis of the security challenges of the region, particularly the challenges to Israel and the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state.”
Kerry said that this process has taken time, and that Allen briefed Netanyahu about various security concepts. He said he feels that Allen’s analysis – supported by the work of some 160 US officials from the Defense Department, the State Department, the White House and the intelligence community – could “help both the Palestinians and Israelis make judgments about some of the choices that are important for arriving at an agreement.” And that, he said, “is progress.”
Kerry said that security was paramount in Netanyahu’s mind with respect to Israel’s ability to move forward on other issues.
“If Israel’s security cannot be increased through this agreement, it is very difficult to make an agreement,” he said. “So we are making certain that we are addressing each and every one of those questions.”
Kerry, who reiterated that he was the only one designated to talk about the negotiations, said that the fact that no information is coming out about the talks, does not mean that they were not productive.
Neither he, Netanyahu, nor Abbas would be spending “all this time” if they were not “hammering out important concepts” and engaging in serious conversations, Kerry said.