The key question in Washington concerning Secretary of State John Kerry’s sixth trip to the Middle East after only four months in office is: What exactly was the agreement he achieved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority? Kerry has spent so much time trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian talks that both sides knew that for him to save face, he had to come home this time with something. The unanswered questions are: What did he achieve? What actually is about to commence, reportedly within the week in Washington? And why is this all “intentionally” unclear at this time?
The answer to the last question seems to be that Kerry has made a tactical decision: Keep it vague by design; apparently there are quite different understandings on the part of the Palestinians and the Israelis on the one hand and the United States on the other. All that is clear is that, assuming follow-up meetings will actually be held in Washington, the secretary’s travel schedule to the Middle East will be reduced, at least for the time being.
At this point, it appears that both sides have agreed to send negotiators to Washington to discuss the agenda, the format, and the calendar for negotiations. This sounds somewhat like the beginning of U.S. peace talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris in 1968, to which both sides sent delegates who spent most of their time arguing over the shape of the table around which the parties would be seated.
It appears that three major spins, none definitive, have emerged from last week’s announcement — somewhat analogous to what transpired at the United Nations in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Then U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg convinced the Security Council that all parties had agreed to the text in the famous Security Council Resolution 242. In fact, as has been noted repeatedly since its passage, the key words “the” and “all” were intentionally left out of the resolution, thus permitting all parties to interpret that document as they wished.
While the Israelis and the Palestinians are not arguing over the size of the negotiating table, both parties, and presumably Kerry, will begin discussions — but based on their own interpretations of the most recent developments.
Israel: There are several views in play, as is always the case in Israel. First, a multitude of domestic issues are troubling the Israeli public, which is extremely distracting. These include the budget, haredi military/national service, taxes, and subsidies. Left-leaning Israelis support immediate discussions, which they see as a way to prevent the vanishing of any remaining opportunity for a two-state solution. Those on the Right do not want Israel to make any concessions — including a freeze on settlements and a return to pre-1967 borders. The government apparently agreed to move ahead, despite some of the coalition partners having threatened to dissolve the government should actual talks commence without agreed-upon pre-conditions. (The government also appears to have agreed to release some “old” prisoners.)
At the end of the day, regardless of where you come out on these alternatives — and on all the details that remain to be worked out — there is truly no downside for Israel to open a discussion. At the moment, such a discussion would appear to present no security risks to the country, given that any decisions that might emerge would be subject to public approval. So all parties can complain and then, if and when any decisions are sent to the voters, Bibi wins, the opponents win, and the United States and the process wins.
The Palestinians: There is no indication that the Palestinians have made any concessions to proceed with talks — although they continue to suggest that even agreeing to talks without preconditions on refugees, specific borders, and a settlement freeze being agreed to by the Israelis is a concession. The Palestinians, however, do appear to have agreed not to pursue state recognition during the time of the discussions.
Israel and the Palestinians: Both sides knew they needed to give Kerry something in order to maintain their own credibility in Washington, regardless of whether or not any substantive results emerge.
The United States: The president and secretary of state needed to show some results from all this shuttling about (including the president’s visit in March). At a minimum, a schedule of first meetings needed to be set. While this is important for the peace process, it is growing clearer that the United States is not playing a decisive role in any other Middle East issues: Egypt, Syria, Hizbullah, Libya, and even Iran; so the administration decided to play the peace process card.
So what is not clear?
Israel did not receive explicit, public recognition as a legitimate state by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and how the Palestinian public has been or would be informed as to the character of these discussions. This point becomes important in light of widespread objections within the Palestinian Council as well as the fact that the PA has not engaged Hamas at all in this entire discussion.
Unfortunately, similar pre-negotiating sessions have occurred before but have failed to grow into actual negotiations. It has been three years since there were public, face-to face meetings between the parties. Hopefully, Kerry has injected new ideas, new trust, and a new reality into the talks. But given the history of the fits and starts of these talks, there are no guarantees that all parties even will appear in a timely manner for preliminary meetings.