From the headlines and the photo, it looks as if John Kerry has restarted the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But to date, the negotiations between the two parties have focused largely on schedules. The most significant progress this week was agreeing to new meetings within two weeks and placing a deadline on the process by the end of April.
On Tuesday at the State Department’s ornate Ben Franklin room, one got a sense that this was a very good day for the secretary of State. Long before taking the job, Kerry had been probing Israeli and Palestinian leaders about how to restart the peace process, which was dormant for all but one day in 2010 during the first term of the Obama administration.
And here Kerry was, standing with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni to announce the restart of negotiations that have failed to produce a Palestinian state since they began in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush reached out to Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, then based in Tunisia.
Tuesday’s warm words and cheery photos masked the fact that neither side has yet agreed to much in substance. A senior State Department official who briefed the press acknowledged as much when he said that neither the Palestinian nor Israeli sides had agreed to President Obama’s basic formulation from a major speech in 2011, when he announced that the basis for negotiations should be Israel’s de facto border before 1967—with land swaps. “It would not be safe to say the parties have accepted that position,” the senior official said. Other diplomatic sources familiar with the negotiations confirmed that account.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, treated Obama’s 2011 formulation as a slap in the face. During a joint photo opportunity after the president delivered the speech, Netanyahu lectured Obama about how dangerous Israel’s position was in the world. From the Israeli perspective, the Obama position on the starting point for talks changed a long-standing U.S. policy that Israel would not be expected to return to the pre-1967 armistice lines.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian position on this issue has hardened in recent years as well. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told Arab reporters on Monday that he considered all Jewish settlements in the territory Israel won in the 1967 war to be illegal. “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli—civilian or soldier—on our lands,” he said. As recently as 2008, Abbas had accepted significant swaps over the 1967 lines in his negotiations with then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Kerry at times sought to lower expectations. “I know the path is difficult,” he said. “There is no shortage of passionate skeptics. But with capable, respected negotiators like Minister Tzipi Livni and Dr. Saeb Erekat standing side by side here today and last night sharing an iftar meal together with all of us, with their efforts, their expertise, and their commitment, I’m convinced that we can get there.”
One factor Kerry is hoping will be an inducement for peace is a promise of several billion dollars in new investment for the West Bank, to be delivered in the event of a final peace agreement. Kerry said he had been working closely with the Quartet, a diplomatic group consisting of the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union, on an economic incentive package for the Palestinians.
Calling it a “groundbreaking economic initiative,” Kerry said the package would “transform the Palestinian economy and build up unprecedented markets and unblocked waves of foreign investment.”
The new economic plan, however, will be a challenge. Last week Israel’s Defense Ministry announced that it would stop granting building permits for European Union projects in a part of the West Bank under Israeli control known as Area C, to protest a recent European Union decision to label products produced in Israeli settlements.
Lawmakers in Congress also voiced caution Tuesday. The instability in the region should be an incentive for the parties to solve their conflict, they said, but nobody knows if the two sides are ready to make peace.
“Hopefully the time is right,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin. “There’s so much violence going on in the Middle East. Hopefully the Israelis and the Palestinians will look around them and say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to find a way to end this.’ So maybe the chaos surrounding Israel and Palestine will be an incentive to try to find a way to have a peaceful resolution.”
Kerry briefed senior lawmakers over the weekend about the process, after which Democrats and Republicans alike said it was worth trying to see if the new negotiations could lead to a comprehensive agreement.
“It’s an uphill struggle. I appreciate Secretary Kerry and the administration taking on tough issues, at least this tough issue,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Republican Bob Corker. “Most people in Congress would love to see a peace accord occur, but people are realistic about how difficult [it is] to make it happen. With all the turmoil in the region, conditions could be developing to a state where success could be had.”