Politics & Diplomacy: Strains in the relationship

There are clear signs of growing American frustration with lack of momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the Netanyahu government’s public criticism of its Iran diplomacy.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On the face of it Israelis and Palestinians are making a genuine effort to cut a peace deal. Over the past three months, the peace teams have met 16 times and in long, detailed sessions discussed all the core issues.
But rather than making peace, the parties seem more intent on playing a none too subtle blame game. And each side accuses the other of not being serious or sincere.
The Palestinians complain that while they have been presenting detailed written proposals, the Israelis have yet to come back with anything in writing.
For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists it is the Palestinians who are to blame for the current stalemate. Their leaders, he says, have yet to take the tough decisions necessary for historic compromise.
Although the substance of the talks is being kept secret, some details have been leaked. On Jerusalem, for example, the Palestinians are proposing an open city in which both Jews and Arabs can travel freely to and from the others’ sovereign territory, with West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine.
There would be two municipalities, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, with a higher joint council to coordinate between them. Although Israel’s public position is that Jerusalem cannot be divided, the Israeli negotiators have not rejected the dual-run model out of hand.
The argument has apparently been over the size of the open city in which free travel is permissible before encountering Palestinian or Israeli border crossing points.
The Palestinians have also made it clear that they will not accept any interim settlement, and that what they want is a final end-of-conflict peace deal. They are afraid an interim deal will become permanent, leaving them in the lurch on key core issues. But once a final deal is signed, and the contours of the permanent settlement are clear, they are ready for it to be implemented in stages – as long as there is a binding timetable.
The big US push for a breakthrough is taking place outside the negotiating room in parallel talks between Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The formula Kerry is working on is security for Israel in return for territory and sovereignty for Palestine. The focus in their seven-hour meeting in Rome on October 23 was on security arrangements in the West Bank after an Israeli withdrawal.
In their November 6 meeting in Jerusalem security was again the predominant issue, this time with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also present. As part of the security package, the Jordan Valley, Israeli-manned early warning stations and clear-cut definitions of what a demilitarized Palestine would mean. There is also a question of monitoring the security agreement and the role the US could play in this.
The American strategy is to encourage Israeli territorial magnanimity by reducing Israel’s security concerns.
This has taken the form of strong verbal commitments by top US officials and generous arms supplies, most recently the promise of six state-of-the-art V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which would significantly increase the operational range of Israeli special forces.
As for the Palestinians, Kerry has been urging them to give Israel the security package it needs in return for a territorial/ sovereignty package based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. In the past, the Palestinians have shown a readiness for serious engagement on the land swap issue.
In a well-documented May 2008 meeting at the King David hotel in Jerusalem with then-foreign minister and current leading Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni, they presented a detailed plan based on eight swap areas, leaving 1.9 percent of the West Bank and 300,000 Jewish settlers (including Israelis in East Jerusalem) in Israel. At the time, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed a swap of just over 6 percent – a 4 percent plus gap the Americans believe would be bridgeable if Israel could be persuaded to repeat its earlier offer.
Israelis demonstrate in front of the American Consulate in Jerusalem, November 10  (YONATAN SINDEL / FLASH 90)Israelis demonstrate in front of the American Consulate in Jerusalem, November 10 (YONATAN SINDEL / FLASH 90)
Kerry’s Palestinian strategy has been to keep them interested by holding out the promise of American economic aid and diplomatic pressure in closing with Israel.
Kerry has also been instrumental in smoothing ruffled Palestinian feathers.
After his November 6 meeting in Bethlehem with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas he made it clear that the Palestinians had never tacitly accepted new Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as some right-wing Israeli politicians implied.
True, the deal for reengagement in peace talks was based on Israel releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners in return for a Palestinian undertaking not to seek further UN recognition for the duration of the talks. But, said Kerry, the fact that Israel had not made a commitment to freeze construction did not mean the Palestinians, or for that matter, the Americans, condoned it. In Bethlehem, Kerry also announced the transfer of the final $75 million of a $100 million American investment in Palestinian roads, schools and health clinics.
Kerry holds that despite the obvious difficulties, achieving an Israeli- Palestinian peace “is not mission impossible.” And he insists that there has been significant progress on some issues.
But there are clear signs of growing American frustration with the Netanyahu government. On November 7, Kerry gave a joint interview to Israel’s Channel 2 and Palestinian TV primarily to caution Israelis against thinking they didn’t need a peace deal because they were safe behind the security barrier and doing rather well economically.
“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Kerry warned. “Today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or next year’s. Because if we don’t resolve this issue, the Arab world, the Palestinians, neighbors, and others are going to begin again to push in a different way. And the last thing Israel wants to see is a return to violence.” In Kerry’s Jordan and Palestine become a “financial powerhouse,” the “economic center of the region”; whereas failure to achieve peace would mean growing international isolation for Israel and, worse, the prospect of a third Palestinian intifada.
The key is with Netanyahu. His tactic seems to be to satisfy his American interlocutors and domestic left-wing critics by claiming in compelling fashion that he really wants a two-state solution, even employing the language of the left that failure to achieve it would mean an untenable one-state reality and the end of the Zionist dream – and then, without skipping a beat, keeping his rightwing domestic allies happy by doing virtually everything possible to block any chance of progress. For example, by announcing the construction of 5,000 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; then embarrassing the Palestinian leadership by implying that they had tacitly accepted this; and when they complain, accusing them of creating “artificial crises.”
But Kerry has begun to air doubts about the prime minister’s intentions. “How – if you say you are working for peace and you want peace and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?” he chided in the joint television interview. “It sends a message that somehow perhaps you’re not really serious.”
The Palestinian approach has been to try to convince the Americans that they at least are serious by putting reasonable proposals on the table. As the weaker party in the negotiation, they rely on two external levers: Getting the Americans to pressure Israel into an agreement, and, if that fails, going to the UN with as much international backing as possible for recognition as a full-fledged member state within the 1967 lines – a move Kerry calls their “nuclear weapon.” They also warn that if there is no deal the violence bubbling under the surface could erupt.
A new survey by An-Najah National University in Nablus shows that 70 percent of Palestinians expect the talks to fail and 57.8 percent expect a third intifada.
The American contingency plan is to put bridging proposals on the table at the right moment: Either when they think the gaps are bridgeable or if the talks become immutably stuck. For now, the specter of an imminent “American plan” is being used as a stick to get the parties to go further. But at the right time it could become a potentially groundbreaking working tool. If presented, it would include bridging proposals on all the core issues and a timetable for implementation.
The carrot for Israel would be peace with the entire Arab world; Kerry had more talks on this with Arab League leaders in Paris in October. And the Palestinian carrot would be the promised game-changing $4 billion investment in the private sector.
Palestinians demonstrate in the West Bank city of Bethlehem against US-sponsored peace talks, November 6 (MOHAMAD TOROKMAN / REUTERS)Palestinians demonstrate in the West Bank city of Bethlehem against US-sponsored peace talks, November 6 (MOHAMAD TOROKMAN / REUTERS)
However, progress on the already demanding Israeli-Palestinian track has been made significantly more difficult by the very public Israeli-American spat over Iran. Netanyahu’s dismissal of the American-led drive for accommodation with Tehran as a “very, very bad deal” signified the breakdown of his grand bargain with US President Barack Obama: a cast-iron US guarantee of a non-nuclear Iran in exchange for Israeli flexibility on the Palestinian track.
At the time the grand bargain was struck, during Obama’s visit to Israel in March, the Americans had decided to embrace Netanyahu and win concessions through mutual trust. That policy is now in tatters.
By playing tough with the US over Iran and Palestine, Netanyahu may win political points at home. But down the road, the big loser is likely to be Israel – with strained ties with its closest ally and a missed chance for a two-state solution, with all that that entails for Israel’s security, its Jewish and democratic character, and its international standing.