Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Peace talks set to resume?

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Update from AIJAC

July 23, 2013
Number 07/13 #06

US Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Friday that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a "basis" to resume peace talks. Israel has reportedly agreed to release 85 Palestinian prisoners from the pro-Oslo period as part of the deal, but other details of this "basis for talks" remain unclear. But despite the announcement, and reported  expectations that negotiators from the two sides will arrive in Washington next week, new talks do not appear to be a completely done deal yet, with a number of Palestinian spokesmen saying that the deal is not finalised and obstacles to renewed talks still remain. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has welcomed this development in a cabinet statement. 

This Update deals with the significance and prospects of the announcement of renewed talks. 

First up, Washington Institute expert David Makovksy explores the background to the renewal of talks. He attributes Kerry's success, after almost five years, to a mutual fear of being blamed for stifling peace efforts, and also to a conclusion by the Israeli government that the status quo is unsustainable. He goes on to stress that while expectations are low for a breakthrough, this has some upsides in quelling Israeli and Palestinian opposition to the talks, and that there remain huge numbers of unresolved and vitally important questions about where things go from here. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE

Next up, an editorial in the Jerusalem Post welcomes the new talks as the key to a two-state arrangement essential for both peoples. However, the paper also then enumerates the numerous reasons to be sceptical that the talks will lead anywhere - including, not least, the fact that there was virtually wall-to-wall Palestinian opposition to PA President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to resume negotiations. Finally, the paper discusses the dilemmas surrounding the long-term terrorist prisoners Israel has reportedly agreed to release as a "confidence-building measure." For the rest of the Post's discussion of the hopes and pitfalls related to Kerry's announcement, CLICK HERE. Also arguing that the talks serve Israel's interests and are a significant American achievement is Israeli columnist Boaz Bismuth.

Finally, in a piece written before the latest Kerry announcement, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens discusses the problem posed for the peace process by the undemocratic and corrupt nature of Abbas' Palestinian Authority. He notes recent protests by senior Fatah leader Sufian Abu Zaida about the concentration of power in the hands of Abbas and the way the PA regime seems frozen in aspic in the mould of old-fashioned one-party dictatorships once so common across the Arab world. Stephens warns that this trend is part of an overall stasis on the Palestinian side which risks eventually causing the world to lose interest in the Palestinian cause, which increasingly appears boring and repetitive, like the 47th season of an old TV show. For Stephens' complete argument, CLICK HERE. More on Abu Zaida's critique of Palestinian politics is here.

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Setting the Stage for New Peace Talks

  David Makovsky

PolicyWatch 2105, July 22, 2013

The various calculations and concessions that brought Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table are mostly encouraging, but the tough decisions all lie ahead.

On July 19, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had "established a basis" for renewing peace negotiations after a nearly three-year standstill. Yitzhak Molcho, a top advisor to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is expected to join Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat for meetings in Washington, perhaps within the next two weeks. Palestinian officials say they are still awaiting some unspecified clarifications from the United States before resuming talks. In the meantime, the initial discussions that Kerry has led since April and the political environment within Israel and the PA could provide analytical clues about how the negotiations might unfold.

STATUS QUO UNDERMINING ISRAELI INTERESTS

A new motif emerged during the Kerry mission: Netanyahu publicly railing against the status quo. Specifically, he has been emphasizing that Zionism is based on Israel remaining Jewish and democratic, and that these traits will not persist indefinitely if Israel fails to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Most recently, his office just released a quote from his Sunday cabinet meeting in which he stated that holding talks is a "vital strategic interest" because Israel is keen on "preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea."

For his part, PA president Mahmoud Abbas has not emphasized any new rationale for negotiations except the statement he made about Israel in early July: "They are our neighbors, and we recognize them as such. We must live together in security and stability." Given the mistrust between the parties, a positive Palestinian rationale for the talks (besides the obvious desire to end occupation) is important amid skepticism about the prospects for a breakthrough. Polls show that while a majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a two-state solution, each side is convinced that the other is not serious. Leaders must therefore find ways to rally their publics around compromise and provide justifications for new talks. This is especially important because hardliners on both sides will likely intensify their opposition if negotiators make progress.

THE SILVER LINING OF LOW EXPECTATIONS

Another theme of the pre-negotiations phase is that right-wing politicians in Netanyahu's government did not bother to block new talks because they are convinced the process will fail. In particular, they firmly believe that Abbas will not make a deal. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, an internal critic of Netanyahu's two-state policy, said he favors talks but called his dispute with the prime minister over Palestinian statehood "theoretical," apparently due to his belief that the PA will not sign a deal. Similarly, leading politician Avigdor Liberman has called Abbas an obstacle to peace and apparently does not believe that Israel will have to seriously consider tough concessions to the Palestinians. Thus far, the various settler factions have not spoken out against Netanyahu's decision either, though their silence may be based on factors other than low expectations.

For his part, Netanyahu clearly wants to minimize his critics' ability to undermine the talks. This was part of the reason why he refused a pre-negotiations commitment to base the outcome of any deal on the pre-1967 borders, as requested by the Palestinians. Right-wing leader Naftali Bennett said his party would bolt the coalition if the prime minister made such a promise. Netanyahu has also signaled that no final agreement with the PA will receive his government's consent until it is approved by a national referendum. He even raised the specter of new elections to ratify the results of negotiations. Given the precedent of Ariel Sharon -- who split the Likud and formed a new party when his ruling faction was not sufficiently supportive of the 2005 Gaza disengagement -- some have speculated that Netanyahu might do the same in the event of a breakthrough.

AVOIDING BLAME

In light of Abbas and Netanyahu's mutual doubt regarding each other's commitment to reaching a deal, many questioned whether Kerry would succeed in getting them back to the table. Yet Kerry was apparently able to exploit another shared sentiment between the two leaders: the desire to avoid U.S. blame for failing to resume talks. Israel did not want to be blamed because it would face even greater risk of diplomatic isolation from Europe and elsewhere.

For the Palestinians, the issue was about not just blame, but also concern that another failure would end U.S. peace efforts for the remainder of President Obama's second term, especially given the various other crises Washington faces at home and abroad. It is an open question whether this mutual fear of being blamed will be sufficient to keep the parties at the table, or just enough to get them there.

BEYOND THE NEGOTIATING TABLE

Off-the-table concessions and benefits also played a role in jumpstarting talks, and such moves will likely continue as the negotiations unfold. For example, it is no coincidence that Kerry and international peace envoy Tony Blair chose the former's peace mission earlier this spring as the moment to announce a $4 billion economic development package for the West Bank. The Palestinians had to assume that if they spurned Kerry, the assistance would not be forthcoming.

Moreover, Abbas knew everyone wanted the PA to return to the table, so he used this leverage to secure two concessions: a phased release of approximately eighty Fatah prisoners convicted by Israeli courts before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and limitations on Israeli settlement growth (it is unclear if these limits apply to all settlements or just the less-heavily-populated nonbloc areas). For its part, Israel apparently secured a commitment from Abbas not to return to the UN to further upgrade the PA's status as long as negotiations continue for the next six to nine months.

STRUCTURAL ISSUES

All parties seem to have learned at least one lesson from the three weeks of negotiations that took place in 2010. At the time, the process entailed that the leaders themselves negotiate -- a politically risky arrangement that quickly produced an impasse. This time, with Livni, Molcho, and Erekat acting as negotiators, neither leader will be exposed to controversial obstacles too early. Although significant decisions must ultimately be made by the leaders, backchannel efforts can still help break the types of deadlocks that occur in formal talks.

Yet Kerry's understandable focus on simply getting the parties to the table has obscured important substantive and structural issues regarding the new talks. As a result, questions abound. Will the parties attempt to negotiate all issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, or will they defer sensitive narrative and symbolic matters and deal with practical issues first, such as territory and security? Will they deal with issues in sequence or in parallel working groups? What will the U.S. role be in direct negotiations between the parties? Will Washington put its own ideas on the table or stay outside the room? Some reports indicate that the United States will name veteran Middle East diplomat Martin Indyk as special envoy, but this has yet to be made official.

The regional role is uncertain as well. Arab leaders gave Abbas political cover last week by saying they support the Kerry peace initiative; ideally, that will continue once the difficult business of negotiations begins. In Egypt, the military's ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government could constrain Hamas's ability to cause mischief, but the situation obviously remains fluid. Meanwhile, the European Union -- Israel's largest trade partner -- decided last week not to fund any Israeli activities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In addition to potentially affecting future trade agreements, this move could harden Palestinian attitudes on the need to compromise if the PA believes it can count on Brussels to press Israel outside the negotiating room.

CONCLUSION

Given the many issues left open for the negotiators, Kerry will likely be adding to his tally of trips to the region in the near future. Indeed, high-level attention will be paid as the parties face critical policy decisions, though not at the pace of the past few months. Kerry has brought the Israelis and Palestinians together for the first time in three years, but the tough decisions on the terms of peace itself all lie ahead.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.

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Great expectations

By JPOST EDITORIAL
07/21/2013 23:45

It is only the beginning of a long road that will undoubtedly be fraught with pitfalls, disagreements and obstacles.


After years of stalemate and an untenable though relatively peaceful status quo between Israelis and Palestinians, US Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have achieved a well-earned breakthrough.

However, it is only the beginning of a long road that will undoubtedly be fraught with pitfalls, disagreements and obstacles.

One indication that the US is making every effort to achieve results with the planned talks is the report that former US ambassador to the US Martin Indyk would be named the administration’s Mideast envoy.

Indyk’s deep understanding of the region and the issues at stake make him a prime candidate for the job of complementing Kerry’s tireless diplomatic efforts.

But despite the high hopes, it’s only natural, based on past experience, to remain skeptical that the talks will lead somewhere.

While Kerry has brought a fresh approach to the negotiating table, we Israelis have a long and bitter history of dealing with a duplicitous and intransigent Palestinian leadership. Experience has shown that any serious headway in peace talks with a “moderate” Palestinian faction inevitably leads to violent attempts by more extremist Palestinian groups to torpedo a negotiated settlement – often with the tacit approval of the “moderate” leadership.

This was the case in the 1990s after the signing of the Oslo Accords and again after the 2000 Camp David talks when corrupt PLO head Yasser Arafat gave Hamas and Islamic Jihad a green light to launch suicide bombings and terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. At the time Arafat commanded a broad base of support among Palestinians and was a legitimate – albeit corrupt and autocratic – representative of the Palestinian people.

Today the situation is different. Though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has continued Arafat’s autocratic legacy, he lacks status as a leader.

Abbas does not have a mandate from his people: his term in office, which began after he won the 2005 presidential elections, expired in January 2009. The split in Palestinian leadership between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the PA-controlled West Bank has prevented the holding of elections. Abbas has essentially been a lame-duck president for a full four-year term.

Unsurprisingly, Abbas faces wall-to-wall opposition to the renewal of talks with Israel from nearly every Palestinian political entity, from the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad to more secular movements such as Mustafa Barghouti’s Palestinian National Initiative, the Palestinian People’s (Communist) Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Even within his own Fatah party, Abbas, 78, has been attacked, particularly by the young guard, for daring to agree to enter negotiations without first securing clear Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands, particularly the recognition of the 1949 Armistice lines and a full cessation of settlement construction as a precondition for resuming the talks.

Abbas is paying the price for failing during the nine years he has served as head of the PLO to prepare his people to make peace with the Jewish state.

Israel’s agreement to release some 350 prisoners – 105 of them long-term inmates arrested for terrorist activity before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – could help strengthen Abbas’s standing in the eyes of some Palestinians, say pundits.

But this concession, aimed at boosting Abbas “the moderate,” comes at the expense of Israelis who must now see those responsible for the death of their loved ones go free.

Why should Israelis who have already paid the ultimate price be forced to undergo such an indignity? Has Abbas done anything constructive, such as prepare his people for painful concessions necessary to reach an agreement with Israel, to deserve such a gesture? Previous prisoner releases have failed to soften Palestinian stands. Most likely they have achieved the opposite, since Palestinians have learned it is possible to exact concessions from Israel without reciprocating.

Despite the dangers ahead, a comprehensive agreement between the sides is the only way to prevent the creation of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and ensure that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic. It is also the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their national aspirations - one reached through dialogue, mutual concessions and goodwill, and not aggression and threats.

We offer full support to Kerry’s initiative and hope that a just agreement with the Palestinians will result in peace and security for both sides.

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The Boring Palestinians

Sufian Abu Zaida is a well-known Palestinian nationalist who worked closely with Yasser Arafat and sits on the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the ostensible legislative branch of the Palestinian Authority's ostensible ruling party. Though he spent years in Israeli prison on terrorism charges, he has long been considered a relative moderate for his participation in various peace initiatives.

These days Mr. Abu Zaida is an unhappy camper, but not because of the Israelis.

"Honestly, no one ever dreamt we would reach this situation of concentration of authorities and senior positions in the hands of one person," he wrote about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a recent op-ed published on several Palestinian websites.

"The President today is the President of everything that has to do with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian cause. He is the president of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the State of Palestine and the Palestinian Authority. He is the president of the Fatah movement and general leader of the [security] Forces. And as the legislative council is now suspended, he issues laws and has practically replaced the council."

Mr. Abu Zaida goes on to complain of the pervasive toadyism among Palestinian ministers and officials, their "impotence and fear" in the face of Mr. Abbas's every decision and appointment. "One of the main reasons that made President Abbas a natural candidate after President Arafat passed away is that many had thought Abbas's management would be different than Arafat's," he notes. Yet now the president "holds authorities that Arafat in all his greatness and symbolic importance didn't hold."

Oh, well: Just another aging strongman in another squalid Mideast dictatorship. What else is new? It isn't going to keep John Kerry—a fool on a fool's errand—from making his sixth visit in as many months to try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It won't keep the Palestinian Chorus from its weekly hymnals of pity and cant.

And yet for all its presumed importance, the Palestinian saga has gotten awfully boring, hasn't it? The grievances that remain unchanged, a cast of characters that never alters, the same schematics, the clichés that were shopworn decades ago. If it were a TV drama, it would be "The X-Files"—in its 46th season. The truth is out there. Still. We get it. We just don't give a damn anymore.

Little wonder that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was interviewed over the weekend by CBS's Bob Schieffer, the topics were Iran, Egypt and Syria, with no mention of Palestinians. Granted, news is a fickle business and what bleeds leads, but the omission was telling all the same. The region is moving tumultuously forward. Israel is dynamic, threatened, divided, innovative, evolving. Egypt careens between revolution and restoration. Lebanon is on the brink, Iran is on the march, Syria is in its agony. America is beating a retreat.

Only the Palestinians remain trapped in ideological amber. How long can the world be expected to keep staring at this four-million-year-old mosquito?

For the usual stalwarts and diehards, the answer will always be: as long as it takes. Palestinians will say it's on account of their supposedly unique experience of injustice and oppression. Professional peace processors think it's because of the supposed centrality of the Palestinian drama to all other Middle Eastern conflicts. The Israeli left and its sympathizers in the West are convinced that Palestine is the key to Israel's survival as a Jewish and democratic state.

All of which is stale bread. Take the most jaundiced view of Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians over the past dozen years: Does it hold a candle to what Bashar Assad does in any given week to his own people in Homs and Aleppo? Take the most exaggerated view of the dearness of Palestine to Egyptians on the streets of Cairo or Turks in the squares of Istanbul: How does their sympathy for Gaza compare with their outrage toward their own governments?

As for the view that Israel needs to separate itself from Palestinians for its own good, that's as true as it is beside the point. The issue for Israel isn't whether it has a theoretical interest in a Palestinian state. It does.

But everything hinges on whether such a state evolves into another Costa Rica—or descends into another Yemen. So far the evidence points toward Yemen. Is it any wonder that, given the choice between a long-term moral threat to their character as a state and a near-term physical threat to their existence as a nation, ordinary Israelis should be more concerned with the latter?

Two days after the publication of Mr. Abu Zaida's op-ed, WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, carried a rebuttal signed only by "The Security Establishment." It denounced Mr. Abu Zaida for serving "a foreign agenda" and being a tool of "enemy media." Then it sang Mr. Abbas's praises in a style worthy of Egyptian state media under Hosni Mubarak.

It was a characteristically thuggish performance, which unwittingly proved Mr. Abu Zaida's point. If Palestinians want to be interesting again, and worthy of decent respect, they could start by not playing to tin-pot type.

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