Analysis: Lowering the bar on peace talks

If John Kerry has learned anything, it is that launching the talks is the easy part of peace.

John Kerry departs Israel January 6 2013 (photo credit: MATTY STERN/U.S.EMBASSY TEL AVIV)
John Kerry departs Israel January 6 2013
Diplomats give a lot of speeches to a lot of different audiences, so it is only natural they repeat the same lines and antidotes, and reiterate the same themes.
One antidote and theme that US Secretary of State John Kerry repeated over the summer as he was struggling to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiations, and even just after he succeeded in doing so, was that the start of talks is often the most difficult part.
“[Quartet envoy] Tony Blair is fond of saying that the hardest part is the launch, and the reason is both sides want to understand what the parameters are...
how will you negotiate, and what will be negotiated about. Once you get to that, then you can begin to really dig in and get to the hard work,” he said on June 30, just as he was leaving Israel after shuttling between the sides trying to get them to finally move back into direct negotiations.
A month and a half later he said the same thing in a speech to a gathering of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, to discuss economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority. “I think it was Tony Blair who said to me many times, ‘The launch is the hardest part.’ It’s almost more difficult than getting there in the end,” he asserted.
The belief that, indeed, “the toughest part is the launch,” goes a long way toward explaining how Kerry could stand up on July 30 in the ornate Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room in the State Department, in front of a 1767 portrait of Franklin, and say with a straight face, “Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months.”
Kerry could say that because if indeed one believes, as apparently he did, that the most difficult task was to get the sides back in the room, then once you got them there, you were halfway home.
Or not. Now, after some five-and-a-half months of negotiations, it is safe to say that Kerry realizes that the toughest part is not getting the sides to talk, but rather getting them to agree on anything once they are talking.
What that realization has done is compel the US to significantly lower the bar. No one is talking anymore about a comprehensive agreement at the end of nine months; no one is even talking about a framework agreement at the end of that period. Now the discussion – all the commotion – is only about a declaration of US principles upon which both sides will agree to continue the talks.
By the measurement Kerry himself put forward in July, the talks have already failed, in that they will not produce a comprehensive agreement by the end of April. But rather then declare failure, what Kerry and US President Barack Obama have done is to change the name of the game: not an agreement, but a basis to allow continued negotiations toward an agreement.
And reaching that basis is something many actually feel may succeed, judging by the furious political reaction in Israel over the last couple of weeks.
Progress toward that much more modest goal has been enough to launch legislative initiatives – such as annexing the Jordan Valley, or banning negotiations over Jerusalem – and stir considerable political foment.
That foment was evident this week when Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman saw it fit, precisely now, to make clear that he would only accept an agreement whereby the map is redrawn to reflect demographic realities, and that areas with large Israeli Arab population centers – such as Wadi Ara and the cluster of Arab villages near the Green Line known as the Little Triangle – are drawn inside a future Palestinian state.
The foment was also evident in Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett’s “Red Line Speech” this week, in which he stated that his party will not accept an agreement based on the pre-1967 lines and the division of Jerusalem.
Bennett did not have to give that speech in November, because it was clear to him then that Kerry’s stated goal of a comprehensive agreement within nine months was simply unachievable. But now that bar has been dropped a few notches and something not devoid of all significance is indeed achievable, he then felt the need to spell out his redlines.
Why? Because all of sudden this whole process does not seem some Quixotic effort doomed to fail, but rather a step-by-step effort that could indeed create its own momentum and lead to something with far reaching ramifications.
In general, what is being discussed is a paper – few seem to know yet how big, or in what detail – that will essentially spell out the final goals of the negotiations.
In order for negotiations to succeed, according to this logic, the sides have to know what they are negotiating about.
Once that is set, then they can sit down and hammer out the details.
One example of this type of overarching direction can be found in the preamble to the 2003 Road Map to Peace in the Middle East.
“A settlement, negotiated between the parties, will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors,” that document read, adding that the settlement would “resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967.”
But that wording, to borrow from adolescent vernacular, is “so yesterday.” Kerry’s efforts are focused on trying to come up with something similar, that both sides can live with, and that reflects the changes that the last 11 years have wrought.
For example, in the new document the Palestinians will not be content with a reference to an “independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state,” but they want the contours of that state defined by saying that it should be based on the 1967 lines. Israel, for its part, is no longer content with saying that this state should live alongside Israel, but rather that it should live side by side the Jewish nation state of Israel.
The document is expected to address in some way or another five core issues: territory, security, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, and the issue of mutual recognition.
Those issues can be divided into two groups. The first one, territory and security issues, are major issues that will entail enormous compromises. But they are relatively straightforward: where does the border run, what arrangements on the ground are needed to ensure security.
The second group of issues may be even more difficult, because there are the “identity” or “narrative” issues: Jerusalem, refugees, and recognition. These issues are highly charged and emotional; they go to the heart of how each side views itself.
They will be more difficult to solve.
On the issue of territory, it is expected that the US paper will deal with this only in general terms. This will not be the paper that charts the new border. The Palestinians want it to state that the goal is a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines, with Israel objecting to that formulation, having insisted that those lines are indefensible.
The document itself is not expected to deal with the settlement issue, and that is one of those details that will have to be worked out in the negotiations. Once a map is drawn, then the sides will have to decide on whether settlements that are on the “other side” of the line will be dismantled, whether the Jews will be allowed to remain there if they wish, and a timeline for withdrawals. But those issues are not the ones being debated now. Again, the idea is first to lay out the principle, and then only later fill in the details.
The same is true of the security issue.
There is wide agreement that the future Palestinian state must be demilitarized.
But under this sub-heading many other questions need to be addressed. What does demilitarization mean? If the PA can’t have tanks and fighter planes, what kind of weaponry will it be allowed to have? Can they have anti-tank weapons? Anti-aircraft missiles? And that is all on the practical level of the security issue. There are also huge chasms on the conceptual level as well. Israel is demanding a military presence along the Jordan River, saying that if it gives up its strategic depth, it must at least maintain the Jordan River as the country’s eastern security border.
The Palestinians fervently oppose, saying there can be no IDF soldiers on their sovereign territory. A third way might be considered – Israeli, American and Jordanian forces with some sort of Palestinian participation.
But that, too, is something that would need to be hammered out, addressing questions such as how many Israeli troops, and for how long.
The American document being drawn up now will have to lay out the parameters for security arrangements, without going deep into the details which will be left for a much later day.
And then come the identity issues. The preamble to the road map did not stipulate that the endgame is a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital. The Palestinians want that type of language inserted in the new document. That is a red flag for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, which has vowed to retain Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital.
And that’s all just to get into the negotiations.
Once you get into them, then the real questions need to be tackled, first and foremost who has sovereignty over the holy sites? Another identity issue is the Palestinian claim of a “right of return,” which they want referenced in the US paper. Israel is firmly opposed, with Netanyahu having made clear that he is dead set against even a symbolic recognition of a “right” for descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948 to come “back” into the country.
Yet for the Palestinians, this is the holy grail of their resistance, the battle cry of 66 years of struggle against Israel. What Palestinian leader will have the authority to give that up? And then, finally, is the issue of recognition of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. The Palestinians view this as an artificial new demand that Israel just recently threw into the mix to complicate matters. Netanyahu says it is the core of the conflict, because without a Palestine recognition of Israel as the Jewish state – meaning that they recognize that the Jews have a right to a piece of land here and not simply that it is just a reality that must be dealt with – then the conflict will never end.
Kerry, according to a source familiar with the negotiations, is still sounding off both sides on the issues before drawing up the final American paper. It is a difficult balancing act. He needs something that will take into consideration the concerns of both sides, because he wants it to be the basis of successful negotiations. If he tips too heavily toward one side, the other might reject it.
According to an Israeli official, the likelihood is that he will present the paper as America’s positions, with each side then registering their reservations. This would be similar to the road map, which Israel accepted as a basis for negotiations, albeit with 14 reservations.
Before leaving the region last week, Kerry said that all the different core issues actually fit together like a mosaic. “It’s a puzzle, and you can’t separate out one piece or another,” he said. “Because what a leader might be willing to do with respect to a compromise on one particular piece is dependent on what the other leader might be willing to do with respect to a different particular piece.”
What that means is that there is a degree of play between the pieces. Israel might be more flexible on the border issue, if Abbas shows flexibility on the recognition issue.
Playing one issue off against the other is part of what is currently taking place, calibrating where one side can give on one of the core issues – even on the “narrative issues” – in order to get something back on one of the others.
And if it works, then there will indeed be an agreement by the end of the nine month period Kerry set out last July. But that agreement, rather than ending the conflict, will simply be consent to continue negotiating toward a goal that is – more or less – agreed upon by both sides. And then the real work will begin. Having been at this now for six months, it is doubtful Kerry still believes that “the hardest part is the launch.”