Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. State Department significantly raised the bar both on the ambitions and expectations for upcoming negotiations between West Bank Palestinians and the State of Israel. The wild card left out of the new discussions, which have set the laudable but so far elusive goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace deal, will be the attitude of Palestinians in Gaza and the strip’s political leadership, Hamas which has already rejected the proposed negotiations. According to Robert M. Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, finding some way to meaningfully involve Palestinians in Gaza in the process, while breaking them away from Hamas and politiically isolating Hamas deadenders, will be crucial to the long-term prospects for peace. No peace agreement can be truly comprehensive if it leaves out Gaza, Danin stressed during a discussion of the implications of the renewed negotiations yesterday.
Palestinian and Israeli representatives finished an initial two days of talks yesterday at the State Department after a prolonged shuttle diplomacy by Secretary John Kerry brought them back together for the first time since 2010 when an expansion of illegal Israeli settlements led to the breakdown of the peace process. Speaking from Washington yesterday, Kerry said, “The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation. And they are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict.
“Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months.” The secretary said Israel and the Palestinians were committed to “sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues” that divide them. The next round of negotiations will take place in either Israel or the Palestinian territories at an as yet-unspecified date before mid-August.
Danin, who has had firsthand experience with the difficulties involved in Mideast negotiations during a two-decade career at the State Department, was generally approving of Secretary Kerry’s strategy so far. It has been a notable success, he said, just to get empowered representatives from the offices of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the same negotiating table. “He convinced them that he wouldn’t go away,” said Danin, referring to the secretary’s persistent efforts over recent weeks, “and he convinced them that the price of saying, 'No,' was just too high.”
Danin believes the tight ship and diplomatic ambiguity maintained thus far by Kerry and his staff should prove valuable assets to negotiations. According to Danin, the most productive final status discussions can only be conducted in secrecy so that both sides can frankly explore strategies for compromise on neuralgic issues, such as the fate of Palestinian refugees and the disposition of East Jerusalem, that would provoke howls of outrage from hardliners in Ramallah or Jerusalem. Netanyahu has asserted that Jerusalem—united by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and claimed as its capital—will never be divided. Abbas has said there can be no agreement and no end to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis without a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, a neighborhood that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but also the last remnants of the Jews’ Second Temple and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Danin was impressed at how high Kerry had set the bar for the Obama administration and how much trust and authority President Obama had placed in Kerry’s hands. “Yet again Secretary Kerry has shifted the goal,” he said, noting the outcome Kerry hoped to achieve would represent a comprehensive agreement that was “conflict ending, [with] no claims” remaining. Negotiators will be trying to resolve not only the conflict of 1967, but also the “existential” conflict of the 1948 war, Danin said. “That’s a more ambitious goal [than an agreement on borders and security], but the only one that will end the conflict in all ways.”
Danin thought Kerry’s insistence on secrecy and deft use of deliberately vague diplomatic language had been key to returning both sides to discussions. Israelis were able to assert at home that they were restarting negotiations without preconditions, and Palestinians were able to proceed with whatever private assurances they had received from Secretary Kerry about respecting the 1967 borders. About the only misstep Kerry has made in creating the environment for negotiations and setting the agenda, Danin suggests, is his public depiction of the upcoming talks as a last chance gambit for both sides. "There is a danger here in setting up an ambitious agenda," Danin said, "[That's] 'all or nothing, now or never.' If you wind up without an agreement, now you really cause harm."
Danin suggested that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, not a notable supporter of peace talks with Palestinians, may have been motivated to return to negotiations by two factors: a realization that Israel’s growing international isolation because of its continuing occupation and settler expansion on the West Bank had reached a critical point and perhaps a desire, as he finishes a third term in office, to leave power with a “legacy” achievement. A comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians would be a diplomatic success unmatched by his predecessors. Also the time is coming closer, he worries, when supporters of Israel in America will have to seriously ponder the effects of its occupation and settler policy on the nature of the State of Israel. "We also have an interest in Israel," Danin said. "What kind of Israel do we want? An occupying state is not the kind of Israel we want; it's not the kind of Israel Israelis want."
For Abbas, the motivations are clear: He needs to prove to an increasingly restive Palestinian population that a peaceful engagement with Israelis can produce results, according to Danin. The recent release of 104 Palestinians from Israeli incarceration is a rare marker of that potential delivered by the Israelis, a diplomatic success for his administration demonstrating that talking can be substantially more effective than the course of confrontation and violence advocated by Hamas in Gaza. Whether these two leaders are the ones tempermentally or ideologically amenable to the compromises that a comprehensive agreement will demand is irrelevant, said Danin. "You go to the negotiations with the leaders you have, not the leaders you wish you have," he quipped.
Beyond the diplomatic devilment of unraveling so far intractable issues such as the right of return for Palestinians driven into refugee camps over decades of conflict and the Palestinian claim on East Jerusalem as their own national capital, two other volatile forces threaten the success of negotiations: the possibility of violence aimed at collapsing negotiations and the reaction of Israel’s powerful settler community to the peace talks.
Settler representatives within Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition are already resisting the minor progress made thus far. A comprehensive agreement could potentially mean that thousands of Israeli settlers would be forced to leave the West Bank. Beyond settler's continued resistance to territorial givebacks, "there are going to be forces," Danin said, "that are going to resort to violence to undermue the political process, and that is going to one of the major dangers."
From an international perspective, according to Danin, the return to negotiation should serve to freeze further efforts to economically and politically isolate Israel for at least the duration of the discussions. What will be crucial is if the State of Israel will indicate its good will by a significant reduction—or even a complete halt—to further settler expansion on the West Bank as talks begin.