Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Jordan that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have “established a basis” for resuming direct peace negotiations. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy Isaac Molho are expected to begin initial talks. They will meet with Kerry in Washington in the next week or so.
Most reports of this initial breakthrough focus on the expected challenges of these negotiations: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s political weakness; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition; the split between Hamas and the West Bank; the Israeli public’s increasing domestic concerns. Then, they focus on the longstanding grievances that hold up most peace talks: borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees.
Additionally, few believe that Abbas and Netanyahu can make real progress towards ending the Israeli Palestinian conflict. In a poll published earlier this month in The Jerusalem Post, “68% of Israelis and 69% of Palestinians view the chances of an independent Palestinian state’s formation in the next five years as low or nonexistent.”
Interestingly, although both groups are pessimistic that peace negotiations will succeed, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians still support a two-state solution. The poll states that “62% of Israelis and 53% of Palestinians” say they “support a two-state solution.”
Even though many analysts still claim the chances of the negotiations’ success are slim, there are several key distinctions in the beginning of these peace talks that may make them more feasible. First, The New York Times reports that Kerry won “concessions on the new framework, which American, Israeli and Palestinian officials said would allow Washington to declare the 1967 prewar borders as the basis for the talks — along with the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — but allow Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to distance themselves from those terms.” (As of the last New York Times report, it is unclear whether the framework explicitly declares the 1967 prewar borders as the basis for talks.)
Kerry was partly able to separate Netanyahu and Abbas from these potentially controversial terms by commencing the talks with their negotiators instead of the two men themselves. This way, the leaders can’t be blamed at the outset, and the initial negotiations are more likely to stay behind closed doors. Kerry asserts that the best way to ensure the talks’ success is to “keep them private.” Ynet, the leading Israeli online news site, echoed this sentiment, with a top headline reading “Without them [Netanyahu and Abbas], talks have more of a chance” (article in Hebrew).
Additionally, both sides made concessions. Israel will free some Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture before talks. The Palestinian leadership gave up on previous demands for a settlement freeze before entering talks. NPR relays that Palestinian officials “wanted guarantees the 1967 lines would be the basis for talks, saying that if Israel accepts that, it would make most of the settlements illegitimate.” Although there is no public settlement freeze, The Times of Israel reports that Kerry promised Abbas there would be a de facto settlement freeze.
The Palestinian leadership may have felt more able to make such a public concession because of the Arab League’s support for Kerry’s talks, which was announced on Wednesday. This came after a substantial diplomatic breakthrough in late April, when the Arab League stated for the first time that it would back a peace plan that allows small land swaps based on the 1967 prewar borders. Previously they had only supported an agreement based on these borders, without land swaps. This change in policy would allow Israel to keep some of the largest settlement blocs in exchange for largely Arab-populated areas within Israel that would become part of a future Palestinian state.
Kerry’s intensive diplomacy, and more importantly, changes in the region likely influenced the Arab League to change their stance. Since the last peace talk attempts, which broke down in 2010 within three weeks, the Syrian civil war and Iranian threat have deeply concerned the 22-member Arab League. They may view a solution to the conflict as a strategy to gain needed backing from the United States for their security concerns.
Increasingly, European and Israeli top officials have criticized the intransigence of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This week, the EU released a harsh rebuke of Israel’s settlement policy, insisting that all future agreements with Israel exclude Jewish territories in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights, which were captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Furthermore, The Guardian reports that, “EU guidelines will prohibit the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships unless a settlement exclusion clause is included.” Palestinians and their supporters applauded this move.
Also this week, Yuval Diskin, a former chief of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), wrote a highly critical op-ed in The Jerusalem Post about Israelis’ complacence with the conflict. He declares in its opening paragraph, “We are approaching a point of no return regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it may be that we have already crossed it.” Earlier this year, six former Shin Bet chiefs profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers profess that “the occupation is immoral and, perhaps more important, ineffective,” urging Israel to withdraw from the West Bank like it did in Gaza in 2005. In May, former prime minister Ehud Olmert revealed details of his peace plan with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, putting pressure on Netanyahu to come back to the negotiating table.
One important question is how much Kerry will be able to influence negotiations moving forward. Many critics have been skeptical of how much Kerry can individually impact talks, including Barak Ravid, a leading columnist for Israeli paper Haaretz. Two months ago, Ravid wrote that Kerry was naive, “that instead of conducting himself as the United States’ chief diplomat, he is acting as a lone ranger who still thinks he’s a senator, propelled by messianic zeal and the belief he was sent by the gods to bring peace to the Middle East.” Now, he admits that, “Kerry deserves the applause… The U.S. secretary of state managed to end the impasse of more than three years in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy with the power of his will.”
Another important factor is if Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni, who both led negotiation teams in 2008 between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, can produce better results this time around with Kerry. If they can stay at the negotiating table for at least six months, as has been agreed upon, that will be an improvement from 2010. Can they come up with a final status agreement? That answer is for more elusive.