Back To The Table, This Time With Kerry

Back To The Table, This Time With Kerry

Israeli-Palestinian talks expected to launch in D.C., but expectations are low.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are expected to begin talks in Washington next week, but hardly anyone believes they will lead to an end-of-conflict peace treaty.

“Kerry wanted negotiations to start, and we know he is a very persistent guy,” Samuel Sandler, a professor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy that led to the talks. “I don’t think he did anything to reduce the tension [between the two sides] or close the gaps, because the gaps are still there. The best we can hope for is an interim agreement — and even that is not on the agenda.”

“Think about the obstacles,” he continued. “There is no way they are going to agree on the status of Jerusalem, on the issue of Palestinian refugees’ ‘right of return,’ and borders. Hamas had rejected [compromises] from the beginning, and the [Israeli] prime minister — because of his own party — doesn’t have much maneuvering room. But the rationale for this meeting is that we must talk. The process is important. ”

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio that he actually preferred an interim, over a final, agreement because even if Israel agreed to Palestinian demands to return to its 1967 border and to partition Jerusalem, the Palestinians would still not agree to end the conflict.

Although Washington is preparing for talks early next week, it was unclear this week whether they would actually take place and the nature of any talks that might occur. The pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat quoted Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as saying he would not leave for Washington without assurances that Israel is ready to negotiate a deal based on the 1967 borders, and to commit to releasing Palestinian prisoners who have been held since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Although there were reports the Palestinians would not meet without the release of these Palestinian prisoners — who reportedly number about 80 — Zalman Shoval, Netanyahu’s special envoy to the U.S. and Europe, told The Jewish Week he understood there would be staged releases beginning with the start of talks.

“From a diplomatic point of view and Israel’s relationship with the U.S. this is an achievement,” he said of the upcoming talks. “I wouldn’t call it a breakthrough, but rather the beginning of the beginning. … The best thing that could come out is perhaps an interim agreement of some sort. But to be able to reach within the foreseeable future a complete final peace agreement where all problems are settled — one has to be beyond optimistic to believe it will happen soon.”

Kerry’s announcement of peace talks came the same week the European Union published guidelines barring EU funding and cooperation with Israeli projects that operate in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an American official as saying the EU was prepared to expand its list of punitive actions against Israel had Kerry’s mission failed to restart talks.

Some analysts said the EU’s tough stance against Israel emboldened Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, giving him the support he needed to accept Kerry’s offer to resume talks. But David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a nonprofit group that supports a two-state solution, said the credit for bringing Abbas to the table should go to Kerry and not the EU

“The EU decision paves the way for the Palestinians to leave the table if the going gets tough in negotiations,” he said. “The Palestinians have made clear that if peace talks fail, they would turn to the international community for support. This [EU] decision gives them an easy out. But it should serve as a wakeup call to Israel that the status quo is unsustainable.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, agreed that Abbas “didn’t need any excuses” to resume talks.

He pointed out that it took a combination of the Arab League blessing for the resumption of talks, Israel’s promise to discuss gestures to the Palestinians once talks resumed, and Kerry’s threat to cut off American aid to the Palestinian Authority to get Abbas to agree to talks.

Shoval said his “gut feeling” is that the U.S. may have “given the Palestinians some sort of assurances that in the American view the border talks should be based on the ‘67 lines. But even if there was a promise like that, it doesn’t commit Israel.”

He said he is confident that even though the Palestinians agreed to restart talks without preconditions, those conditions would be the first raised during the talks.

“The Palestinians took a strategic position with [former Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat and Abu Mazen [Abbas’s nickname] —they do not want to negotiate with Israel because they understand that at the end of the day they would have to compromise on refugees and Jerusalem, and they would have to accept Israel as the state of the Jewish people. All of these things are anathema to them.

“Under Arafat, they undermined any compromise by starting the second intifada. Under Mazen, the Palestinians avoided compromises by going to the UN. To circumvent compromise again, they can turn to terror again or the UN or insist on preconditions before any talks. They will find a way to undercut the negotiations.”

Nevertheless, Hoenlein said Kerry deserves “credit for efforts that brought them from a place where no one thought there was a prospect for talks to at least a situation where there is potential. Israel has made clear its commitment. I think Netanyahu is serious and is entering the talks in a very deliberate and sincere way.”

The start of talks would make it “harder” for Abbas to return to the UN for recognition and it would “prevent the Europeans from getting involved as well,” he pointed out.

Shoval added that Israel is willing to return to talks “even if there is a small iota of a chance to reach an agreement. We are not terribly optimistic it will work, but we will know we did what we had to do and the onus will not lie with us.”

Even as preparations for talks were taking place, the EU decided to declare the military wing of Hezbollah a terrorist organization, something Israel and the U.S. have long sought. But Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, told the Security Council Tuesday that trying to separate Hezbollah’s military wing from its political wing is “like trying to distinguish between your right hand and your left hand. Surprise, surprise, no matter how you look at it, they are both attached to the same body.”

And referring to the EU guidelines regarding the disputed territories, Prosor said: “While the United States has been working to bring the parties back to the negotiation table, the EU prefers to table harmful and divisive measures. Instead of setting a course towards peace, the EU is steering the Palestinians in the wrong direction. Direct negotiations and only direct negotiations are the only way forward.”

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