Having successfully completed two days of preliminary negotiations, the Israelis and Palestinians returned from Washington to prepare for what is expected to be at least nine months of substantive talks. With the United States set presumably to play the role of convener and/or moderator and/or intermediary, the parties are scheduled to begin talks again next week.
There was one almost unprecedented part of these negotiations which so far has not been emphasized enough: the absence of extensive leaks and press maneuvering from either side. Secretary of State John Kerry must have been extremely firm on that point when he set the terms. Traditionally, Middle East negotiations have been stymied by Arabs constantly posturing to each other and using the media to tilt the world against Israel. Similarly, Israeli governments always tried to justify their strategies to their political opposition as well as the press, right in the midst of negotiations.
To accomplish these ends, the usual technique is to leak to the public bits and pieces of what is transpiring. So far, both Palestinians and Israelis have kept their mouths sealed. It remains to be seen if both sides can keep it up.
The one leak to emerge last week appears to have come from Kerry himself or his office. An unidentified, pro-Israel member of Congress told reporters Kerry felt the discussions were proceeding well and Israel had little about which to be concerned. The lawmaker indicated Israel would be assured of keeping 85 percent of the settlement blocs in a final agreement.
Even if this is true and Kerry did speak to a member of Congress, it probably should be a warning to the State Department that they too need to follow the same instructions Kerry gave to the Palestinians and the Israelis. Members of Congress also have audiences to play to and an equally hungry media to feed.
There also seems to be one other ground rule which Kerry issued that could be tested almost immediately: Don’t threaten to leave the negotiations if matters do not proceed precisely as your side would wish. As a corollary to that decision, Kerry apparently insisted on no preconditions to the negotiations. On this, time will tell.
The next steps are sensitive. Preceding the Washington meeting, Israel agreed to the release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners, including some who had been incarcerated prior to the Oslo Accords. The list of those to be released was still being finalized. According to reports issued by the State Department, the prisoners are not to be freed all at once; the first group is to be released at the end of Ramadan and the balance over the next few months.
Given the complexity of the negotiations and the region, the next round could implode over which prisoners are on which list. To his credit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to clear this painful step with his government, putting the ball in the Palestinians’ court.
Lest one assume Netanyahu has fallen totally into the peace-making business, the negotiations cannot be seen in isolation of Israel’s concern about the new Iranian president’s nuclear intentions. With Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel putting the finishing touches on a generous arms deal with Israel (it includes high-tech missiles, radar systems, and advanced tilt-rotor aircraft), Netanyahu needed to respond in kind by showing his willingness to proceed with the peace negotiations — full force and without qualifications.
The Israelis believe they are approaching a critical point in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. To prevent this, Netanyahu clearly will need full support and pressure from the president, as well as a smooth path of support from the U.S. military should Israel proceed alone against Iran. This is a critical subplot to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.