Israel and Palestine Agree to Peace Talks, but With Reluctance

John Kerry has finally convinced Israeli and Palestinian officials to return to the negotiating table, but with no changes to the fundamental land issue that divides them, the prospects for peace appear just as unlikely as before

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Mandel Ngan / AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on July 19, 2013

John Kerry finally got what he came for, and came for, again and again and again — six times to the region in his first six months as Secretary of State: an announcement Friday that Israel and the Palestinians would resume peace negotiations. But it was a tepid one, weighted by reluctance on both sides and two decades of fruitless previous talks that encourage the shared pessimism.

Indeed, the dynamics that drove both sides back to the negotiating table appear to have little to do with the fundamental issue that both divides Israel and the Palestinians, and also binds them to one another endlessly — that both lay claim to the same land.

In Israel, the week before the nominal breakthrough, the Hebrew press was dominated by a diplomatic uproar that, more than anything, served to underscore the vital importance of at least looking interested in talks. What concerned Israelis was an E.U. effort to bar funding to Israeli entities operating on the West Bank, which is to say, in the approximately 200 Jewish settlements and outposts — subdivisions and small towns — Israel has built on land the Palestinians see as part of a future Palestinian state.

(MORE: After Peace-Process Stumble, Is John Kerry Wasting His Time in the Middle East?)

The rest of the world, including the U.S., calls the settlements illegal, but Israel regards them as part of sovereign Israel and sees the E.U. action as a diplomatic body blow — and perhaps a prelude to more in the absence of the formal negotiations that so please the watching world, as Yair Lapid, now Finance Minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, put it in the last campaign. Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor held to the line Friday, in an effort to hold back the E.U. action: “It would have been preferable if the energy put in drafting these guidelines had been invested in peace-promoting measures.”

The promise of a negotiated peace is what brought Mahmoud Abbas to the presidency of the Palestinian Authority seven years ago, in the glum aftermath of the second intifadeh, which chiefly proved that force — including suicide bombings — was not working so well. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, lives to negotiate. But such is the distrust of Netanyahu (whose Likud Party is now dominated by settlers) that Abbas could not gather a majority of the Palestinian leadership on the West Bank to endorse Kerry’s bid to resume talks. (The other major Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip, is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas, which refuses negotiating a final settlement on the issue.) The holdouts wanted the preconditions President Obama had himself held to during his first term, before handing the issue off to Kerry — a freeze on settlement construction and a statement that negotiations will begin with the borders that defined Palestinian territory in 1967, when Israeli forces took over the area, which it continues to occupy militarily.

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Israel rejects a formal acknowledgment of the 1967 lines, even though it’s been the basis for negotiations for two decades. Said Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin to Army Radio: “A negotiation in which you first say what you are willing to give up is not the kind of negotiation that leads to good results in the Middle East.”

By the same logic, the Palestinian side refuses Israel’s insistence that they recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” before resuming talks. Such a declaration would effectively nullify their claim of a “right of return” to the homes Palestinians fled and were driven from by Israeli forces. Polls show most Palestinians know it’s not going to happen, but the “right” is widely regarded as sacred (and worth compensation).

Kerry’s solution, as reported in the Hebrew press, was to say the talks would be based on both the 1967 lines and Israel’s status as a Jewish state, and let each side distance itself from the language. The talks are billed by Kerry as “final status” and set to begin “within a week or so in Washington.” Saeb Erekat, who has a Ph.D. in “peace-and-conflict studies,” will be representing the Palestinian side. Israel is sending both Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister who made a resumption of talks a condition to her party joining Netanyahu’s governing coalition, and Isaac Molho, a private attorney who answers directly to the Prime Minister. All three have spent hours across the table from one another in previous negotiations. They know one another well, and what’s expected of them, and likely, after these many years, what’s not.

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