Israel-Palestinian negotiations finally come into some focus

After months of backroom talks, Israeli and US leaders provided some clarity this week as to what they are trying to achieve.

IDF soldiers detain Palestinian in Jordan Valley 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldiers detain Palestinian in Jordan Valley 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Finally, after some 4-1/2 months of Israeli- Palestinian negotiations, some kind of game plan is beginning to emerge. Finally, some sort of indication about how this is all supposed to work – the logistics of the process, what a number of the key actors (namely the US and the Israelis) are thinking – is coming out into the open.
US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry all spoke to the Saban Forum in Washington over the weekend, and a careful reading of what they said – as well as comments chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni made at Tel Aviv University this week – provide an indication of where the process is now, where it is headed, and some of the pitfalls. Here is a look at some of the essential issues.
Security The penny, at least in the US, has dropped – in fact, it dropped months ago – and there is a realization that nothing moves unless Netanyahu is confident that Israel’s security will not be compromised by a future agreement.
Any agreement Israel makes, Netanyahu told the Saban Forum via video hook-up on Sunday, “must enable us to protect the peace, or conversely to protect Israel, in case the peace unravels.
That often happens in our region. So there must be iron-clad security arrangements to protect the peace, arrangements that allow Israel to defend itself, by itself, against any possible threats. And those security arrangements must be based on Israel’s own forces. There is no substitute for that.”
Since words like these – “Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against all possible threats” – are said so often by so many, they lose their impact; the ear no longer takes notice.
But Netanyahu means it, and the Americans know he means it – and as a result, they have set up a team apparently unprecedented in size and scope to look at Israel’s security requirements after an agreement, and to suggest solutions.
These types of security analyses have been done numerous times over the last 20 years of Israeli- Palestinian talks, but apparently not to the extent being undertaken now, led by Marine Corps Gen. (ret.) John Allen.
“Never before – ever – has the United States conducted such an in-depth analysis of Israel’s security requirements that arise from the potential of a two-state solution,” Kerry said at the Saban Forum on Saturday. “Never.”
He said that some 160 people from an alphabet- soup list of US defense and intelligence organizations are involved in the project: evaluating the security implications of a Palestinian state from “every potential security scenario – something on the border; something on the border; something in the future; terrorism in the future; a weakness of the Hashemite Kingdom. Whatever it might be.”
What this illustrates is that the Americans understand, as Livni said, that the path to a Palestinian state runs through Israeli security.
With that understanding, Kerry – who arrived again on Thursday to move the process forward, in his most recent stab at shuttle diplomacy – hopes to present Netanyahu with a security plan that he simply cannot refuse; a security plan that Kerry hopes and believes will be seen as providing Israel with almost as much security as it can provide itself.
And that, indeed, is a tall order, because as former national security adviser Giora Eiland wrote in a Yediot Aharonot op-ed this week, for Israel, the security risks bound up with a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria are not only from the Palestinians, but rather from other enemies.
For instance, Eiland wrote, Israel cannot agree to Palestinian sovereignty over its airspace, because the Jewish state needs freedom of the skies over the West Bank – not to face a threat from a Palestinian air force, but rather to combat other air forces.
Will, however, the Palestinians agree to the curtailed sovereignty that comes from not having complete control over its airspace? Most of the media speculation regarding Allen’s security ideas has focused on the Jordan Valley, and whether Israel will – as it demands – be able to retain a security presence there. That issue is obviously crucial for various reasons, as an Israeli presence is necessary not only to ensure that arms and terrorists do not enter the new Palestinian state from Jordan, the way they reached Gaza from Egypt, but also to make it less tempting for terrorist forces to try to set up a staging ground in Jordan, like they did in Sinai.
There are also a myriad of other issues that need to be factored in, such as the possibility that a future Fatah Palestinian state will be overrun, as Gaza was, by Hamas; the instability of the region; and the chance that a nuclear threshold Iran will destabilize the Sunni regimes to Israel’s east.
Beyond the question of the IDF presence on the Jordan River, the Kerry plan needs to cover what it will take to keep a future Palestinian state demilitarized; the limitation on arms in a Palestinians state; limitations on that state’s ability to strike up treaties with other countries (in light of the question of what happens if it forms an alliance with Iran); and tricky issues having to do with territorial airspace, as Eil and pointed out, and the electromagnetic spectrum that governs communications systems.
The Americans, as Kerry indicated, are aware of all the problems, and are trying to come up with answers. These answers will apparently be based on an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for an extended period of time – the periods discussed range from 10 to 50 years – and with the US provision to Israel of stateof- the-art arms systems and the most sophisticated surveillance equipment available to man, from satellites to censors.
The more the package adequately responds to the security concerns as defined by Israel, the more likely Netanyahu will accept it – and there is the rub. The more extensive the package, the more it will impinge on Palestinian sovereignty, and the more they will likely reject it.
The Palestinians, who this week spoke out against Kerry’s ideas, will try to erode the plan, whittle it down. But if they succeed, Israel won’t accept it.
According to one source, who is wellplaced to know what is on the table, the American are close to meeting Netanyahu’s expectations.
“This is serious, and the Americans are trying very hard,” he said. “If it is a good proposal, we should be happy. If the Palestinians reject it, then they will be blamed, not us. But if they accept it, it is a great step forward.”
Framework agreement At the outset of the negotiations at the end of July, Kerry talked about a ninemonth deadline, leaving the impression – mocked by many – that by the end of April, Israel and the Palestinians would be signing an accord.
This week the expectations were lowered a bit, with both Obama and Kerry saying the immediate goal is a framework agreement, not a comprehensive one.
“I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail, but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes [it is] better to move forward than move backwards,” Obama said.
Kerry expanded on what this means, saying that a basic framework will “address all the core issues – borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and an end of claims. And it will have to establish agreed guidelines for subsequent negotiations, which will fill out the details in a full-on peace treaty.”
Framework agreements are initial documents that outline key provisions, which then need to be fleshed out in a larger treaty at a later date. Israel has had mixed experience with such agreements. The 1978 Camp David Accords were actually two framework agreements that were later fleshed out into a full peace treaty, which has lasted for some three decades.
That is the successful example.
The less successful example was the 1993 Declaration of Principles (the Oslo Accords) Israel and the Palestinians signed on the White House lawn, also a framework agreement – which still has yet to give birth to a comprehensive treaty.
Implementation, transition and Gaza The implementation of any accord will be gradual, Livni said this week. Obama also made this clear, saying “the Palestinians also have to recognize that there is going to be a transition period, where the Israeli people cannot expect a replica of Gaza in the West Bank.”
What needs to be determined, he said, is whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas “is willing to understand that this transition period requires some restraint on the part of the Palestinians as well. They don’t get everything that they want on day one. And that creates some political problems for President Abbas as well.”
Implementation of the accord, Obama said, will happen in stages. And here he addressed what has perpetually been the huge elephant in the room of any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians – what about Gaza? One of the most startling elements of the 2007 Annapolis summit was the degree to which the then-leaders did not address Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, and talked about Palestinian-Israeli negotiations without confronting the issue. How can you sign an agreement with the Palestinians if Abbas cannot deliver Gaza as part of the accord, because he does not control Gaza?
Or, as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said in a Channel 2 interview this week, how do you negotiate for the sale of a car with someone who owns most of the car, but not the trunk? Obama spelled out how he envisions cracking that particular nut: “I think this is going to have to happen in stages,” he said.
“If, in fact, we can create a pathway to peace, even if initially it’s restricted to the West Bank, if there is a model where young Palestinians in Gaza are looking and seeing that in the West Bank, Palestinians are able to live in dignity, with self-determination, and suddenly their economy is booming and trade is taking place, because they have created an environment in which Israel is confident about its security, and a lot of the old barriers to commerce and educational exchange and all that have begun to break down, that’s something that the young people of Gaza are going to want.
And the pressure that will be placed for the residents of Gaza, to experience that same future, is something that is going to be, I think, overwhelmingly appealing.”
In other words, Obama’s vision is an agreement between Israel and the PA over the West Bank, with America then hoping that the people of Gaza will want a piece of the pie, and force their leadership in that direction.
This is strikingly similar to how former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice envisioned the Annapolis process working.
Iran Much of what Netanyahu said at the Saban Forum – whether regarding the Palestinians or the Iranians – he has said numerous times in the past. There was one new element he introduced, however, and it is both significant and could be a major stumbling block in moving forward with the Palestinians.
“I think that any kind of peace we’ll have is likely, initially at least, to be a cold peace. And it must withstand the forces of terrorism and the ravaging forces of radicalism, and all the forces backed by Iran and others that will try to unravel the peace,” he stressed.
Returning to the theme, he added, “Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs. A nuclear-armed Iran would give even greater backing to the radical and terrorist elements in the region.
It would undermine the chances of arriving at a negotiated peace. I would say it would undermine those peace agreements that we have already reached with two of our neighbors.”
In other words, Netanyahu linked keeping Iran from building a bomb to getting a deal with the Palestinians. The linkage was not in the form of leverage or a threat, such as: if you want Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian track, then take care of Iran.
Rather, the linkage was born of Netanyahu’s belief that if the Iranian issue is not taken care of – if Tehran is not denied the ability to acquire nuclear weapons – then no security guarantees for a post-Palestinian state period will work. This is because the Islamic Republic will work tirelessly through its proxies, which will then enjoy a nuclear capability, to undercut them.