The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks
Are the peace talks led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s special envoy, Isaac Molho, for the Israelis, and Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh for the Palestinians, headed for a comprehensive peace deal, a bust, an extension or interim measures? What are the prospects of arriving at a deal on water, security, settlements, mutual recognition, borders, Jerusalem and refugees?
Since the start of the negotiations and the prisoner release on 29 July 2013, the talks began with a rocky start when Israel approved the construction of 1096 settlement units in the West Bank, 63 new units in East Jerusalem, and then an additional 900 units in East Jerusalem in mid-August just after talks began. In spite of this initial flurry of activities and mutual recriminations, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiators have met an additional eleven times since the opening of the talks, four times in August, four times in September and four times in October, three very recently on the 18th in Jerusalem, the 20th in Jericho and the 21st in Jerusalem once again. Martin Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel and the head of American Secretary of State John Kerry`s advisory team, actively participated in the flurry of recent talks.
Most recently, on Wednesday the 23d, John Kerry met with Netanyahu in a very long meeting in Rome following talks Kerry had with the Europeans, the Saudis, and the Arab League, each with their own special issues quite separate from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – American spying on European leaders, American talks with Iran against Saudi vehement opposition, and America`s equivocal dealings with the new Egyptian military government. It was not clear what instigated the long meeting in Rome, but it did not seem unrelated to the letter that Netanyahu released the day before congratulating the Jewish visitors to Hebron to honour their matriarch on the reading of the parashat this week depicting Sarah’s death and burial. Netanyahu wrote: “I hope that the ‘Hebron Shabbat,’ with its thousands of participants, will deepen our connection to the city of our forefathers”. Even though the talks were to focus almost exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Rome meeting almost certainly spent a bit of time on the positive news emerging from the Iranian-American talks on nuclear weapons if only to assuage Netanyahu`s fears that a deal would be struck before Iran took positive steps to end its nuclear enrichment program and make arrangements for its enriched stockpile.
The Americans leaked that the purpose of the Rome talks was to pin down Netanyahu on the compromises that he is prepared to make on the final status issues as the talks pass the one-third mark on the nine month promised deadline. What compromises are expected? The deal on water is already in the bag and has been for years, secured more recently since Israel has a surplus of gas from its Mediterranean fields and is able to desalinate water to produce surpluses to sell to the Palestinians.
The security aspect of the agreement will build on the successful cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians as evidenced most recently on Tuesday with the Shin Bet slaying of Mohammed Assi, 28, one of the Islamic Jihad Tel Aviv bus bombers in 2012, who was trapped in a cave near the village of Bilin in the West Bank. The solution to the security issue is also connected with the recent progress on the ground of Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in shutting down the tunnels and taking action against Hamas militants in the Sinai. Evidently, Israel has been very influential in helping Egypt obtain from the USA equipment to enhance Egypt`s counter-insurgency capabilities.
On settlements, Israel has made clear that it has no intention of limiting its building of residential units in areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank already intended to be part of the exchange of territory between Israel and Palestine and it is likely that the exchange of territory will have to come close to parity in restoring the same amount of non-Israeli land occupied by the Palestinians in 1967 and not 94 or 97 or even 99%. Border adjustment, though not an easy issue, is no longer an intractable one, especially since, in practice, certain areas are already clearly Israeli or Palestinian. The key issue will be what happens to the settlements that will remain on Palestinian lands to be transferred to the new Palestinian government. There will be no attempt to massively empty the settlements as was carried out in Gaza. Instead, the settlers on Palestinian lands will likely be given a generous economic package to repatriate to Israeli land or to live under Palestinian rule if they so choose, though Palestinians remain adamant that all settlements should be vacated.
This leaves the three tough issues. The Palestinians will not accede to Netanyahu`s demands that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state for they see that as a betrayal of both Palestinian-Israeli citizens as well as undermining their claims on behalf of the refugees. Netanyahu might give up on this explicit declaration in return for some implicit concession as well as an agreement on protection for the settlers who wish to continue to live under Palestinian rule.
The Jerusalem issue is also no longer as intractable as it once was given the current practices of Israelis of avoiding travelling into Palestine residential areas. Certainly, the temple mount will fall under some super-national authority with agreements on archeological arrangements. Whether this agreement extends to include other holy sites, whether the boundaries of a super-national jurisdiction go beyond the temple mount and extend to the Arab parts of the Old City, or whether the problem will be disaggregated along functional lines, I have no idea. However, given the extent of the enormous amount of work and maps already developed, this remains a tough but no longer impossible issue to overcome.
The biggest issue remains Palestinian refugee return – not actual return since very few are expected to return and Israel has been adamant that it will not accede to anything but a humanitarian gesture in this area. The issue has been and remains how to grant a right of return but a right which can never be exercised as a right. Past efforts to square this circle have constantly floundered. The other serious worry is that insufficient preparations have been undertaken on the compensation issue in spite of an enormous accumulation of international precedents not only re the Jews in Europe but with all the discussions of various groups that have been `cleansed`. Unlike the right of return issue which goes to fundamental identity claims by the Palestinians, the compensation issue is a practical one which can flounder if insufficient attention is paid to working out the concrete details. Further, to the extent those details can be settled, the more likely the Palestinians will be in a position to accept an equivocal agreement on the right of return.
I myself remain pessimistic that an agreement can be reached over the next six months, but such a deal no longer resides in never never land and has moved into the arena of possibilism.