Washington Watch: Stalling for peace

John Kerry’s first stop after signing the deal with the Russians to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal was in Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the agreement and to return attention to the secretary of state’s top priority in the region, Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Kerry, Livni, Erekat press conference 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
Kerry, Livni, Erekat press conference 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
John Kerry’s first stop after signing the deal with the Russians to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal was in Jerusalem to brief Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the agreement and to return attention to the secretary of state’s top priority in the region, Israeli-Palestinian peace.
A recent flood of Palestinian leaks in violation of Kerry’s blackout rule threatened to sink the talks before they got much beyond the starting gate. The Israelis have been – uncharacteristically – leak-free in honoring the secretary’s insistence that the US be the only source of news out of the talks, while Palestinian leaders, on and off the record, have been complaining bitterly about Israel.
The Israelis complained to the US envoy, Martin Indyk, about the Palestinian leaks, and they seemed to have slowed since Kerry subsequently met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in London last week, but soon resumed. President Barack Obama will be meeting this week with Netanyahu and Abbas when they come here for the UN General Assembly, and they can expect pep talks on the need to take the peace talks more seriously.
The Palestinians insist the talks focus initially on boundaries, starting with Israeli maps of where it sees future borders; the Israelis say that would be premature without agreement on security arrangements.
The Palestinians claim they have a written commitment from the US that the Israelis agree that the 1967 lines will be the basis for discussions, something Washington and Jerusalem deny.
The gist of Palestinian complaints is that Israel is dragging its feet and is solely to blame for the lack of progress. Netanyahu, they say, wants to retain 40 percent of the West Bank under a long-term interim arrangement with a provisional government, temporary borders, limited removal of settlements, an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and no compromise on Jerusalem. An unnamed Palestinian official said, “The Israelis have shown no intention to dismantle any settlement.”
That is not entirely inconsistent with positions Netanyahu has taken in the past, but neither Israel nor the US would confirm that has been tabled in their talks. If that is his position today, everyone is wasting their time and should call the whole thing off because those terms are unacceptable to the Palestinians, the US and quite possibly most Israeli voters.
Abbas has rejected those terms and insists that a final-status agreement be reached in the nine months Kerry has said the talks should take. Or else.
The Israeli camp is reportedly split on that issue, with chief negotiator Tzipi Livni pressing for a final-status deal by the middle of next year while Netanyahu’s personal envoy and Livni’s minder, Yitzhak Molcho, apparently pushing the interim proposal.
Livni was foreign minister in the previous government of Ehud Olmert and negotiated with Olmert a far-reaching deal with the Palestinians, which Abbas turned down without countering. More than four years later the Palestinian leader says he is ready to resume negotiations at that point and insists Netanyahu adopt Olmert’s proposal. Abbas, who has held only one election and has delayed another for the past several years, apparently doesn’t understand that in a democracy elections have consequences.
Each side is accusing the other of stalling.
The Palestinians point the finger at the Jerusalem government, saying that as the stronger party Israel feels it can wait the Palestinians out, maintain the status quo, demand terms Netanyahu knows are unacceptable and use the time to build more settlements to make it harder to create a Palestinian state.
They say Netanyahu wants to play for time until the Palestinians walk out and he can say he made the effort but that they weren’t serious.
THE ISRAELIS say it is the Palestinians who are creating obstacles because they’re not really interested in negotiating with the Israelis; they want Washington to get so frustrated with the lack of progress that it will step in and negotiate on their behalf, offering its own peace plan and forcing Israel to accept it.
The Palestinians believe Obama’s and Kerry’s views of the outcome are closer to their own and that’s why they want Indyk to join them at the table, something the Israelis continue to resist.
Both sides have some cards to play in this game.
The Palestinian “or else” noted above is a threat to pursue action against Israel in UN agencies and other international organizations and to accuse the Jewish state of war crimes in the World Court, charging that settlement construction is a form of ethnic cleansing.
Abbas is unlikely to walk out before the full nine months, however, because it would halt the staged release of prisoners held by Israel and damage his relations with Washington. He needs to stay in America’s good graces not only politically but financially since his economy’s outlook is “dim,” according to the IMF, and his usual donors are over-extended helping in more urgent crises in Egypt and Syria.
One option Netanyahu could turn to is unilateral withdrawal from most of the West Bank, much as then-prime minister Ariel Sharon did in Gaza in 2005. Hamas may have come to power in Gaza, but all in all, say advocates of that approach, it has been successful for Israel, which faces a minimal threat, has Egyptian help in keeping the Strip quiet and no longer has to patrol those mean streets and be responsible for its inhabitants.
Netanyahu can’t afford a breach with Washington because he is looking to it for leadership in blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That is especially critical as the new Iranian government is on a charm offensive that Netanyahu fears could lead Obama to relax the pressure on Tehran. The Israeli leader also picked up some IOUs in his and the Jewish community’s backing of Obama’s ill-fated and inept bid for approval for a military strike against Syria. Israel also has much more political clout in Washington than the PA and can expect strong backing, especially on Capitol Hill, in a split with the Palestinians.
The peace talks will go on, and Kerry, who has much more enthusiasm for the enterprise than Netanyahu and Abbas, may have to return for additional pep talks, but nothing is likely to happen until both parties quit stalling and get a lot closer to making a serious and realistic peace deal.
[email protected]