U.S. Proposal Boosts Momentum for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

The current round of Israeli-Palestinian talks has taken place in a climate of cynicism. But a new American proposal has given the negotiations some momentum, at least on the Israeli side

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Brendan Smialowski / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks past American and Israeli flags at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Jan. 6, 2014

Glimmers of hope are appearing in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks championed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. After five months of formal but unproductive secret meetings amid a climate of skepticism, the atmosphere around the talks has turned serious and politically lively, at least on the Israeli side.

The source of the new energy appears to be the Obama Administration’s decision — in the absence of progress between the two parties — to produce its own written “framework,” a document articulating the core issues in terms the parties would then take up in talks that follow the current round, due to expire in April. The announcement that Washington would step forward to have its say had the effect of forcing both sides out of their comfort zones.

“Until a few weeks ago there were talks between the parties … but these were not really negotiations, in the sense of give and take and moving into flexibilities of both sides. It was more like presenting your opening positions on all the issues and discussing,” says Michael Herzog, a retired general who has taken part in previous peace talks on the Israeli side, and is serving the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an informal advisory capacity during the current talks.

“So I think the U.S. understood that if you continue down that road, you get to the end of the nine months with nothing, and nobody wants to get to the end of the nine months with nothing,” he says. The decision to produce a framework document, with input from both sides but owned by the U.S., was announced by both President Obama and Kerry at a Washington conference in early December, and sank in gradually. “Once there was more and more public understanding of what they were talking about — that there was going to be a U.S. proposal, with guidelines on all the main core issues,” says Herzog, “people realized it’s not the earliest phase of endless talks, but it’s something more serious, more real.”

The new reality became evident to Israeli political observers only recently. “Since the beginning of this week, the sense here has been that something is happening,” Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in the Hebrew daily Maariv on Tuesday. “Something has shifted, mainly beneath the surface.”

But also above the surface: on Sunday, Finance Minister Yair Lapid addressed a meeting of his Yesh Atid party: “As someone who is familiar with the progress in the peace process, it’s real.” Lapid’s centrist party is the second largest in Netanyahu’s governing coalition. “There’s a real opportunity that is closer than it appears to be to reach an arrangement, and we mustn’t miss it,” he said. “I want to strengthen the Prime Minister and to call on him to make every effort to realize this opportunity.”

On the same day, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — whose nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party is formally linked to Netanyahu’s Likud — shifted from a critic of any talks to a supporter of the framework, telling a meeting of ambassadors that the U.S. proposal is the best Israel can expect. “Other proposals from the international community would be worse for us,” he said.

The text of the framework has not yet been released, and Kerry has worked to keep details of all negotiations confidential. But numerous reports indicate Kerry is leaning toward Israel’s positions on at least two areas of controversy: allowing Israel to maintain some kind of military presence in the Jordan Valley of the West Bank, even in a sovereign Palestinian state. There are also indications the framework would endorse Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which in 1988 recognized Israel as a state, add recognition of it as a Jewish state — an acknowledgement Israelis say they would understand as a genuine end to the conflict over the biblical land both Jews and Palestinians claim as a homeland.

In return, Netanyahu reportedly would accept a statement in the framework that any final agreement would be based on the borders of 1967, the year Israeli forces captured and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Accepting the 1967 lines — with exchanges of land to allow Israel to keep its largest housing settlements — might push at least one party out of the governing coalition. Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler Jewish Home party that favors annexing the West Bank, on Monday vowed to leave the government. “No more word games: the 1967 lines mean dividing Jerusalem and giving up the Western Wall, the Temple Mount and the Old City,” Bennett said. “In what way will our history remember a leader that gives up Jerusalem? We won’t sit in such a government.”

Other parties would, however. Leaders of the propeace Labor Party have signaled their willingness to join Netanyahu’s government in order to keep negotiations going. And senior Western diplomats in recent weeks have been sounding out leaders of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties about joining the government. Though conservative on many issues, the religious parties have historically been flexible on land for peace.

The religious parties might be needed if peace talks grow so serious that Netanyahu’s own Likud party fractures. The Likud’s charter calls for retaining the West Bank, and in the past 18 months the rightist party has become dominated by prosettler lawmakers. One introduced legislation calling for Israel to annex the Jordan Valley. The bill was considered symbolic, but Herzog, the former negotiator, takes its introduction as evidence of genuine alarm among right-wingers that the peace talks — which could lead to the birth of a Palestinian state — appear to be gaining traction.

How much traction? In historical terms, not terribly much. In previous rounds of negotiations named for the places they were convened — Wye River, Camp David, Annapolis, Taba — the two sides were trying to hash out details of a final-status agreement. The current round has not even gotten as far as delineating the issues at hand. Nor has Netanyahu met his counterpart, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, across a negotiating table. But that could all change in the weeks ahead.

“The framework should be the door that ushers in bilateral negotiations,” says Herzog. But as Kerry explained at length as he departed Jerusalem on Sunday, the terms of the framework must be carefully calibrated. “It’s a puzzle, and you can’t separate out one piece or another,” Kerry said to reporters. “Because what a leader might be willing to do with respect to a compromise on one particular piece is dependent on what the other leader might be willing to do with respect to a different particular piece. And there’s always a tension as to when you put your card on the table as to which piece you’re willing to do, when and how. So it has to move with its particular pace and its particular privacy, frankly.” Which is why the text of the outline is still weeks away, according to State Department officials.

“It’s where the U.S. believes the balancing point between the two parties should be,” Herzog says. “This is a very delicate business.”