The framework game

Most pundits rate the probability of the Kerry initiative producing a breakthrough historic peace deal as very low.

Five months into John Kerry’s relentless Middle East peace effort, the American secretary of state and his European allies pulled out all the stops to make Israel and the Palestinians an offer they could not refuse.
The proposed “framework agreement” carefully crafted by Kerry and his team sought to address both sides’ deepest concerns: security for Israel and the territorial contours of a final peace for Palestine. To this the Europeans added an unprecedentedly munificent offer of economic aid and cooperation for both parties if they concluded a peace deal, coupled with a threat of harsh punitive economic measures if they didn’t.
But both Israelis and Palestinians were signally underwhelmed. The Palestinians complained that the American security package was heavily weighted in Israel’s favor and impinged on their sovereignty; Israel countered that the Palestinians were not serious about reaching a deal, only playing along with Kerry to strengthen their hand, hoping to blame Israel for the inevitable collapse of the talks and, with broad international backing, take the conflict back to the UN Security Council.
The Palestinians shot back that it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was not serious. Moreover, they argued, given Netanyahu’s hard-line party and coalition partners, it was not clear whether he could cut a deal even if he wanted to.
Undeterred, Kerry’s goal is to reach a framework agreement on all the core issues – borders and the size of future land swaps, security, Jerusalem and refugees by the end of January 2014. It would guarantee Israel security vis-à-vis an independent Palestinian state and the Palestinians fullfledged statehood within borders they could accept. The Americans believe that once the core principles are agreed, the minutiae can be negotiated in a more relaxed climate and a more focused manner.
To further concentrate the minds, the Europeans, working in tandem with Kerry, announced major economic, diplomatic and security incentives. The EU proposition is truly unprecedented: it offers both Israel and the Palestinians “special privileged partnership,” the highest possible form of association with the EU of non-member states, if they sign a peace deal. This would mean upgraded access to EU markets, closer scientific and cultural ties, more European investment in Israel and Palestine, enhanced diplomatic dialogue and intimate security cooperation.
Conversely, if the peace talks break down, the Europeans are threatening to withhold billions of Euros in donor funds from the Palestinian Authority – which would probably lead to its collapse – and, for starters, to intensify sanctions against Israeli firms with ties across the 1967 Green Line.
The European position highlights the stark nature of the choice facing Israeli and Palestinian leaders: for Israel economic advancement, a diplomatic umbrella against delegitimization and close cooperation against international terror versus growing economic boycott measures and potential loss of international support; for the Palestinians economically viable statehood versus loss of crucial donor funds, domestic chaos and waning international interest in their plight. In other words, Israelis and Palestinians could choose a win-win peace deal, or, like a benighted pair of drowning Siamese twins, drag each other down to the depths.
Nevertheless, the American framework plan is already floundering over its very first major initiative: the proposed security package for Israel. Its provision for a 10-year IDF presence in the Jordan Rift Valley led Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to fire off an angry memorandum objecting on several counts: for one, the Palestinians would have preferred an American-led NATO presence in the Jordan Rift Valley, as previously agreed with former prime minister Ehud Olmert; any Israeli military presence would be seen by the Palestinian rank and file as prolonging the occupation; worse, the proposed framework agreement stipulated that the IDF force would be withdrawn at the end of the 10-year period if and only if the Palestinians met their security commitments – apparently giving Israel the right to decide whether or not to pull out. Under such terms, Abbas complained, Israel would able to keep the IDF in the Jordan Rift Valley, in the heart of Palestine, indefinitely – something no Palestinian leader could accept.
Abbas’s tough negotiating position was reinforced by a public statement from the Arab League to the effect that no peace deal that allowed Israeli soldiers on Palestinian soil could hold. Behind the scenes, though, Palestinian negotiators intimated that an Israeli presence for a more limited transitional period might work.
So what are the chances of the Kerry initiative producing a breakthrough historic peace deal? Most pundits rate the probability as very low – partly because leading players in both parties seem to think they can do better outside the Kerry framework.
On the Palestinian side, some argue that by internationalizing the conflict through the UN they will be able to achieve statehood without having to make concessions on territory, Israeli security or refugees; and among the Israeli Right there is a prevalent view that the Palestinians can be worn down into accepting a situation in which Israel retains control over a less-than-fully independent Palestinian entity.
Moreover, the Palestinians argue that the current negotiations are lopsided; not only is Israel by far the stronger party, the mediator, its strategic ally the US, is largely on its side. To counter this, they have developed a two-stage strategy: first, precisely because of its closeness to Israel, try to win the US over; and if that fails, move on to plan B, reducing the weight of the American role by internationalizing the conflict.
Abbas is still pursuing the American avenue. In his three-page memorandum, which he addressed to US President Barack Obama, he outlined Palestinian positions on all the core issues, clearly hoping to influence the substance of the American framework proposal.
Other Palestinian thinkers, however, argue that the American deck is too heavily stacked against them and advocate pressing for a wider negotiating forum with the power to impose a settlement on Israel.
For example, Mohammed Shtayeh, the minister for economic development and rehabilitation, who resigned in protest from the Palestinian negotiating team in mid- November, argues that a recalcitrant Israeligovernment cushioned by the US will not budge on any of the core issues. Rather than continue sterile bilateral negotiations mediated by the US, he suggests that the Palestinians call for a model similar to the Geneva talks with Iran (a negotiating forum including the five UN Security Council members – the US, Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany) with the power to impose a peace deal on the parties.
That is unlikely to happen. If the current talks collapse, the Palestinians are more likely to take their case back to the UN, where they will apply for full membership as a state within borders specified by the Security Council. To garner maximum international support for their move they will want to blame Israel for the failure of the negotiating process. Already the blame game is in full swing. Shtayeh’s call for a wider negotiating forum also serves to point a finger at Israel as responsible for the current stalemate. Lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is playing blame games too. He told foreign correspondents in a mid-December briefing at Beit Jalla that a deal was doable – if Netanyahu wanted one, implying that if there is no deal it would be the prime minister’s fault.
Israel is also preparing its blame game brief. Israeli officials argue that because the underlying Palestinian strategy is internationalization of the conflict, they are just going through the motions with Kerry.
As evidence they note that the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, won’t commit to an end of conflict or finality of claims, don’t accept an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley and won’t waive the right of refugee return to Israel proper. Abbas, they insist, is just waiting out the Kerry effort so that he can blame Israel for its failure and get a tailwind for internationalization.
The Americans, however, maintain that the parties are negotiating very seriously and in good faith. They put the public bluster down to posturing for position. Assuming they are right, and assuming, as his close aides insist, Netanyahu genuinely wants a peace deal, the question then becomes: Will he be able carry it through? Netanyahu’s coalition is showing signs of strain, but not yet over peace with the Palestinians. And although there is tension in the electoral pact between Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, bad blood between Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, sharp differences between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi on a host of civil issues and mutual recrimination between coalition hawks and dovish Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua – no one is in any hurry to quit the unruly and discordant government.
Bottom line: If a peace deal with the Palestinians were to come to a vote in the government as presently constituted, Netanyahu would have little difficulty pushing it through. In a worst-case scenario, 15 of the 23 ministers would support Netanyahu – eight Likud, five Yesh Atid and two Hatnua – with just eight, five Yisrael Beytenu and three Bayit Yehudi, against.
A Knesset vote would be trickier. But even though Netanyahu can count on only around 11 or 12 of the 31-member Likud- Yisrael Beytenu faction, they would be complemented by 19 Yesh Atid, 15 Labor, six Hatnua, six Meretz, two Kadima and 11 from the mainly Arab parties for a majority of at least 70 in the 120-member Knesset.
If Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi were to pull their 23 members out of the coalition, Netanyahu would have three choices: Bring in Labor and Kadima for a majority 62-member coalition, bring in Labor, Kadima and the ultra-Orthodox Shas for a more stable 73-member coalition, or call elections which would serve as a referendum on the peace deal.
Shas support for the peace deal would make Netanyahu’s domestic situation much easier. Well aware of this, the Americans are keeping Shas leader Arye Deri in the picture.
Netanyahu’s biggest challenge would likely come from his own Likud party, where the vociferous Central Committee would almost certainly be largely opposed.
His tactic so far has been to palliate the hawkish voices in the party with the promise of a nationwide referendum on the peace deal.
The Kerry initiative has created conditions under which with skillful leadership the parties could reach a conflict-ending modus vivendi. It would be tragic if, because they mistakenly believe they can get a better deal by other means, or because their leaders fall short, Israelis and Palestinians were to miss a heavily internationally invested opportunity that may not come round again.