Diplomacy: The scent of unilateral steps

US Secretary of State John Kerry spent nearly 5 hours with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week. One thing is clear: Israeli moves to change the situation on the ground were discussed.

Netanyahu and Kerry meeting in Berlin (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Netanyahu and Kerry meeting in Berlin
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the country this week for the first time in over a year, and sat in meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for nearly five hours.
Afterward, both the Prime Minister’s Office and the State Department issued a coordinated, laconic, four-sentence statement.
There were slightly different nuances in the wording of the statements – with the Israeli version referring to a “wave of terror against Israeli citizens,” and the US one referring more generically to “violence in Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank” – but the thrust was same: the two men talked about what steps to take now in light of the current situation.
Upon returning to the US, Kerry told reporters that “we may be reaching a pivotal point now where both sides have important decisions to make for the future, and we obviously hope they make choices that will advance the prospects for lasting peace.” He said that both sides were now called on to take “affirmative steps” to reduce tension and demonstrate a commitment to a two-state solution.
He did not, of course, spell out what those affirmative steps were. But one thing is certain: Something is in the air, and it has the whiff of unilateralism.
Netanyahu first tossed out a hint of some kind of unilateral action during an appearance earlier this month in Washington at a liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress.
Although some observers say he mentioned unilateralism in that forum because he was trying to win points with American progressives, the fact is that in answer to a question about an Israeli “Plan B” if a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians was not possible, Neta n y a h u said “any deal or any a r r a n g e - ment, unilateral or negotiated, must have Israel maintain the ability to defend itself by itself against [any] threat, including from territories that are ceded.”
While Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) – using a particularly ill-chosen metaphor – reportedly boasted during a private meeting that while Netanyahu spoke abroad about unilateral moves, the premier retracted after “I put a bullet between his eyes,“ Netanyahu did expand on the unilateral theme at last week’s Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference.
Asked specifically about unilateral steps he may have in mind, Netanyahu said, “Well, unilateral moves in security and the economy are there.
We’re doing them. I prefer bilateral.
I prefer negotiated moves. But in the aspects of security and the economy, there’s room for it. Politically, I think it’s more complicated and not desirable.”
One possible unilateral direction was revealed this week, following the Kerry-Netanyahu meeting. A segment of that long meeting was spent in private consultations between Kerry, Net a nya - hu, and the prime minister’s envoy on the Palestinian issue, Yitzhak Molcho. The presence of Molcho in the room indicates that they were talking not just about how bad the recent wave of terrorist attacks is or the regional situation, but about what steps Israel could take toward the Palestinians to try to tamp down the violence.
Diplomatic sources said after the meeting that Netanyahu made clear to Kerry that the first condition to a change in the security and economic conditions in the territories would be a restoration of calm.
It was clear, therefore, that there were discussions about what steps Israel could take to improve the Palestinian economic and security conditions.
In Washington Netanyahu stressed that while “there have been calls for me to effect closure on the territories” as a result of the attacks, “I think it’s very important that we focus on the knife-wielders and on the molotov- cocktail-throwers, but not inflame the rest of the population.”
Or, as a senior government official said, Netanyahu’s policy is to be very tough on the attackers, but don’t punish those not involved in the terrorism.
In line with this approach, a senior IDF official told reporters Wednesday that the IDF was recommending increasing work permits for Palestinians in order to moderate the wave of terrorism by giving the Palestinians something to lose.
As far as unilateral security steps, it was also widely reported this week that the IDF is recommending strengthening the Palestinian Authority’s security forces – including providing them with more arms and armored vehicles – to prevent a worsening of the security situation.
Following the Kerry-Netanyahu meeting, the diplomatic sources stressed that Netanyahu told Kerry that in practical terms, moving forward civilian projects the Palestinians are interested in what will happen only once the level of violence is lowered and Israel’s security needs are answered. What that means is that the approval of Palestinian civilian projects are being considered.
Indeed, Channel 2 reported this week that Israel was considering freeing up of thousands of dunams in Area C – which comprises some 60 percent of Judea and Samaria – for Palestinian projects. The Palestinians and the EU have for years been clamoring for permits to build industrial, residential and commercial projects in Area C.
Which could very well be the unilateral step that Israel is considering: transferring to the PA large swaths of Area C.
This, in fact, is an idea that has long been out there. Former US Mideast envoy Martin Indyk said at a conference in Tel Aviv two weeks ago that during the final stages of the 2013-2014 negotiations, Israeli officials were willing to hand portions of Area C to the PA and freeze settlement building.
“In the last night of the negotiations that I was involved in, the Israeli negotiators came with an offer of tens of thousand of dunams of Area C that they were prepared to give over to the Palestinian Authority’s control, to build what they would want to on them without the permit regime and so on,” he said.
But Netanyahu made clear to Kerry this week that there would be a price: a green light for Israel to build inside the settlement blocks.
The prime minister, according to the sources, made clear that if the Palestinians want permission to build in Area C, then Israel expects recognition of its legitimacy to build inside the settlement blocs.
The State Department quickly shot down that proposal, with spokesman Mark Toner saying at the daily briefing in Washington on Tuesday: “Every US administration since 1967, Democrat and Republican alike, has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond the 1967 lines, and this administration’s been no different and will be no different. The US government has never defended or supported Israeli settlements and activity associated with them and, by extension, does not pursue policies that would legitimize them.”
But Toner overlooked the letter former president George W. Bush wrote to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2004.
“As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338,” Bush wrote.
“In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
Israel widely took the term “new realities on the ground” to mean the large settlement blocs.
Moreover, the former deputy national security adviser to Bush, Elliott Abrams, wrote in 2009 that understandings were reached between the Bush and the Sharon government regarding settlement building.
“On settlements, we also agreed on principles that would permit some continuing growth,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal at the time.
“Mr. Sharon stated these clearly in a major policy speech in December 2003: ‘Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements.
There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.’ Ariel Sharon did not invent those four principles.
They emerged from discussions with American officials and were discussed by Messrs. Sharon and Bush at their Aqaba meeting in June 2003.”
At the Post’s diplomatic conference, Netanyahu said, “Well, there are all sorts of unilateral moves in all sorts of directions. Wait and see. And they are not necessarily in the direction that people think.”
He refused to be more specific.
This week, however, the broad contours of at least one of those directions began to emerge.