Kerry Testing a New Path Toward Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Mideast peace has long been the Everest of diplomatic mountains, and those who’ve tried to scale it have generally followed the same route: small steps by each side to give both the confidence to take bolder ones.

Even as skeptics bet against Secretary of State John Kerry’s new peace effort, analysts such as Aaron David Miller say the top U.S. diplomat has made small changes to the familiar approach that could improve his odds of success. The talks between Israel and the Palestinians are scheduled to continue on Aug. 14 in Jerusalem, the State Department said yesterday, and Kerry has tried to minimize the pressure on both parties by wrapping the terms for the negotiations in a veil of secrecy.

The secretary has drawn lessons from previous U.S. attempts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The most important may be the one that at first impression is the riskiest: Kerry insists on discussing all the most difficult core issues now -- borders, the return of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, settlements and security -- instead of putting them off, as past negotiators have done.

“You’re talking about a secretary of state whose absolutely committed to talking about the five core issues that drive the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator who is vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “As long as he does that, the prospect of the confidence-building measures that have failed over and over again in the past take on a whole new traction.”

‘Old Approaches’

Others say the changes Kerry made don’t go far enough. “It’s a repackaging of old approaches with more vigor,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group. “You can’t do the same thing that didn’t work and expect a different outcome,” he said in a phone call from the West Bank city of Ramallah.

U.S. envoy Martin Indyk will travel to the Mideast for the talks next week that will begin in Jerusalem and then continue in Jericho in the West Bank, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday in Washington. The sessions follow initial talks in Washington last month.

There are signs of trouble already. The latest Israeli Peace Index poll this month found growing growing intransigence about trading land for peace, the foundation for negotiations since the 1993 Oslo accords. Sixty-three percent of Israelis told pollsters from the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University that they wouldn’t support a peace deal on that basis, even if it included security for Israel and a demilitarized Palestinian state.

In the weeks since Israel committed to the new talks, its military has moved almost 1,100 additional housing units in the West Bank closer to approval, some of them in two isolated settlements that Israel previously had deemed to be illegal, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Reciprocal Steps

Previous peacemaking efforts, including the Oslo accords and the 2002 “road map” for peace, were sequential, with a step by one side prompting a reciprocal one from the other. Under the July 2002 road map, Palestinians were to improve security and reduce violence against Israelis. Israelis would then dismantle and freeze West Bank settlements.

There were two central problems with this, both of which Kerry is avoiding, said Natan Sachs, also a Brookings Institution fellow.

“The gradual approach failed in part because every time you had a step to build confidence, that became a huge political battle,” Sachs said. “It spread the difficulty out,” and as one side failed to complete its gesture to build confidence, Sachs said, the other side would be relieved of its obligation to respond.

Full Package

The second flaw was that “the time given for confidence-building measures ended up being time the opponents of an agreement used to derail things,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.

That prospect hangs over Kerry’s push for peace, Sachs said, “so the approach now is to do everything at once and do it secretly, then come to the public with a full package.”

It’s not clear whether the two sides will be able to tackle all the issues, said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s like Mount Everest,” Makovsky said. “From afar it doesn’t look that big, but when you’re up against it, it’s quite steep.”

The confidence-building gestures Kerry is encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to make aren’t a mystery: There’s a familiar list of demands by both sides.

Prisoner Release

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked for prisoner releases, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has obliged, pledging the phased release of 104 jailed Palestinians. Kerry also has said that Israel supports his efforts to attract millions of dollars in investment to spur the West Bank economy.

Palestinians, in turn, have offered to set aside their efforts to gain greater recognition at the United Nations, a push that officials in Jerusalem and Washington view as potentially leading to Israel’s de-legitimization. They also have stepped back from threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court over its occupation of Palestinian territories it seized from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

One familiar request, for Israel to freeze settlement construction, hasn’t been included this time. A State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing the diplomatic effort, said Kerry decided not to push the issue, which scuttled talks in 2010 when Netanyahu refused to extend a freeze and Abbas walked away.

Nine Months

That episode highlights other differences in Kerry’s approach that may work in his favor, said Sachs. The secretary of state isn’t asking either side to do anything of great political difficulty, and he hasn’t made the talks conditional on any of the confidence-building measures.

Kerry also has asked both sides to “stick it out for nine months” of talks regardless of what happens, said Makovsky.

Makovsky said changes in the Israeli political conversation also could help Kerry. Using Netanyahu’s nickname, he said that “for the first time, Bibi is framing peace in terms of sovereign interests. It’s ‘what’s in it for us?’ instead of the usual ‘do you trust the Palestinians?’”

That approach has migrated from the Israeli left, which has long argued that the alternative to a peace deal is a binational state with an eventual Palestinian majority if Israel is to remain a democracy.

Kerry is building on decades of peace talks, too, said Sachs. During the Oslo negotiations, the idea of a Palestinian state was difficult for Israeli politicians to discuss. Now Netanyahu can do so openly.

Palestinian Skepticism

If history has given Kerry a political base, it has also eroded conditions, Sachs and Elgindy said.

Palestinians view the peace talks with either “opposition, skepticism or indifference,” Elgindy said.

Twenty-three percent of Palestinians told the Gallup polling organization last month that they don’t have much trust in the U.S. to negotiate a fair peace deal. Also, 66 percent said they had no trust that the U.S. could be an honest broker. They see the peace process “as a fig leaf for the occupation,” Elgindy said.

“Twenty years of peace process has gotten them more settlements, more checkpoints, their residency status in Jerusalem is less secure, their leadership is weaker and more divided,” with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamist party Hamas ruling Gaza, Elgindy said. Moreover, he said, Israeli settlers on the West Bank have gained a stronger voice, including roles in government.

Israeli Politics

Their presence changes Netanyahu’s political calculus. Netanyahu’s coalition, said Sachs, “isn’t built for a deal.” That said, “he could rely on another coalition or go to a referendum, which would very likely succeed,” Sachs said.

While majorities on both sides want an agreement, neither side believes the other does, said Makovsky.

That deep distrust creates a “disconnect between the reality on the ground and the goal that exists among the negotiating teams,” Elgindy said.

Inevitably, everyone will run up against the largest disconnect of all, said Telhami of the University of Maryland.

“At some point, they are going to get deadlocked and confidence-building steps aren’t going to make a difference,” Telhami said. “To the extent that an agreement is possible, that’s when it becomes a matter of U.S. leadership,” he said.

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