Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. State Department significantly raised the bar for both the ambitions and the expectations for upcoming negotiations between West Bank Palestinians and the State of Israel. One wild card in the new discussions, which have set the laudable but so far elusive goal of a comprehensive Middle East peace deal, will be the response of Palestinians in Gaza and the strip’s political leadership, Hamas. No peace agreement can be truly comprehensive if it leaves out Gaza, Robert M. Danin, the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed during a discussion of the renewed negotiations on July 30.
Palestinian and Israeli representatives finished an initial two days of talks on July 30 at the State Department after prolonged shuttle diplomacy by Secretary Kerry brought them back together for the first time since 2010. Speaking from Washington, 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.”
Danin was impressed by 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. 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.”
But in an indication of just how fragile progress in the Middle East can be, just days after the hopeful presentation in Washington, the negotiations were threatened by the preliminary approval given by Israel for the construction of over 1,000 new settler homes in the West Bank. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat protested the move in a letter to Kerry, deploring the decision as proof of “Israel’s bad faith and lack of seriousness.”
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. Danin believes the tight ship and diplomatic ambiguity maintained thus far by Kerry and his staff should prove valuable assets to negotiations. The most productive final status discussions can only be conducted in secrecy, he said, so that both sides can frankly explore strategies for compromise on neuralgic issues, like the fate of Palestinian refugees and the disposition of East Jerusalem, that would provoke howls of outrage from hardliners in Ramallah or Jerusalem.
Danin suggested that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel may have been motivated to return to negotiations by two factors: a realization that Israel’s growing international isolation had reached a critical point and perhaps a desire 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, Danin points out, when supporters of Israel in America will have to ponder seriously the effects of its occupation and settler policy on the nature of the State of Israel itself. “What kind of Israel do we [Americans] want?” Danin asked. “An occupying state is not the kind of Israel we want; it’s not the kind of Israel Israelis want.”Kevin Clarke