A Turning Point for Negotiations?

Date: 
June 7, 2013
Despite all odds, generous doses of public cynicism, and repeated proclamations by pundits of the death of the “Two State Solution” (the end of conflict and end of claims based on creation of a viable Palestinian state) Secretary of State Kerry, building on the visit of President Obama to Israel and the West Bank last March, has captured the attention of all concerned in his attempt to get an agreement to start meaningful direct negotiations in the next few weeks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Kerry might just make some real progress. His tactic has been what former Secretary of State James Baker called the “Dead Cat " approach. No one wants a dead cat left on their porch. No one wants to appear in public to be the first one to say “no” to negotiations.

Kerry has backed up his effort with a threat. If the two sides cannot agree on a meaningful plan for negotiations by a date certain – currently late June – then Kerry will cease his intense mediation effort. This is not an empty gesture. This strategy was used successfully by Secretary Baker in June 1990 when he famously told the Israeli government, “When you are serious about negotiations, call us,” after Prime Minister Shamir laid out strict conditions for entering into talks. Shamir later said he would have used negotiations to buy time to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank.That confrontation ended in the loss of the next Israeli election by Shamir in 1992 to Yitzak Rabin, who then signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. This history of confrontation and a lost election is doubtlessly not lost on Kerry or Prime Minister Netanyahu.

How has Kerry gotten as far as he has?

Prominent U.S. friends of Israel and many Israelis themselves have echoed the warning given by Kerry to the American Jewish Committee on June 3 that Israel’s continued occupation and expansion of settlements in the West Bank is leading to Israel’s increasing international isolation.  Examples are the lopsided vote in the UN last November to recognize Palestine as a state and the recent announcement by the prominent physicist Stephen Hawking that he would boycott a conference in Israel this month hosted by President Shimon Peres because of the occupation. The impasse over negotiations is based in the refusal of the Netanyahu government to resume negotiations where they left off in 2008 with the previous government coupled with the refusal of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to enter into negotiations unless new Israeli settlement construction is suspended in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said repeatedly he is willing to enter into negotiations without preconditions, but the PA fears that without suspension of construction, negotiations would only be used by Netanyahu to buy more time as they have in the past to expand the Israeli population in the West Bank. Another failed negotiation would risk leaving the PA worse off politically than they are now.  In any case, Netanyahu’s continued expansion of settlements and legalization of outposts seems prima facie to contradict the goal of two states.

Some doubt that Prime Minster Netanyahu would ever agree to the creation of a Palestinian state, notwithstanding his occasional statements that he will under certain conditions. His Likud party platform opposes any Arab state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Yet he is also sensitive not only to Israel’s international isolation but to the danger that Israel’s “success” in preventing a Palestinian state would leave a single state with a growing non-Jewish population that someday could outnumber Jews.   He recently said that a bi-national state is not possible. Some interpreted this as laying groundwork for talks about two states.

Kerry has apparently made remarkable progress already in bringing the two sides together. It is believed he got a secret agreement in April that for a limited time Israel would not authorize new settlement construction in the West Bank or East Jerusalem and that the PA would not bring a complaint against Israel in the U N Criminal court while he tried to get an agreement to negotiate.  When Israel broke the spirit if not the letter of that agreement by legalizing some settlements that had hitherto been illegal under Israeli law, the State Department made known that Kerry called Netanyahu directly to complain. Settler groups recently complained that there is now a de facto freeze on new Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, suggesting that this agreement exists and is holding.

Prospects for a Breakthrough

There is pressure now on both sides to agree to an indefinite suspension of new construction and suspension of the threat of new legal action in the International Criminal Court. After years of delays by Israel and pleas by the U.S. for forbearance at the UN, the Palestinians seem determined to play the UN card unless there is real progress on the construction issue.  The PA argues it cannot wait and needs an answer by late this month. Kerry seems to have gone along with that timetable, threatening to suspend his mediation if the two sides cannot agree by that time. Of course an agreement this month for direct negotiations would only be the first step of protracted negotiations.

An agreement to suspend new construction, with the threat of legal action in case of resumption, will create enormous political pressure in Israel and could lead to new elections. On the other hand, a public refusal by Israel to suspend construction and withdrawal by Kerry might also create a domestic political crisis for Israel's fragile coalition, also leading to new elections.

The outcome is far from certain.