One More Last Chance

Is John Kerry quietly on the cusp of a Israel-Palestine peace talks breakthrough?

Dec 30, 2013

As Secretary of State John Kerry heads off to Jerusalem and Ramallah in search of a still elusive Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he probably doesn't need to be reminded that nobody ever lost money betting against one.

The odds that Kerry can succeed are long; and even if he did manage to reach a Framework Agreement on Permanent Status -- what we use to call a FAPS back in the day -- that doesn't mean the piece of paper can be implemented.

Still despite my own annoyingly negative analysis, as the 2013 gives way to 2014, I'm slightly more encouraged about Kerry's prospects. And here's why.

That a secretary of state wants an agreement and is prepared to work relentlessly toward one is no guarantee of success, particularly when it's not clear whether the two sides really want one, or that his own president has his back. At the same time, the fact that Kerry is actually thinking of presenting the two sides with a FAPS suggests strongly that there has been some narrowing of the gaps on the core issues. And that would simply not have been possible without Kerry.

Granted, in politics and in life, there's often a fine line between self-delusion, commitment to any enterprise with long odds, and actual success. But Kerry has put himself in the middle of this mix and just doesn't seem willing to give up. This kind of commitment in a strange way creates an infectious reality that can help risk-averse parties to a negotiation actually believe in its viability. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Mahmoud Abbas know how to reach an accord on their own -- or frankly would have taken the initiative to do so if left on their own. Kerry is the glue and adhesive. Kerry is the glue and adhesive. Let's see if his relentlessness can help the two sides own the FAPS too, and then make something stick.

Make no mistake, Kerry would not have gotten this far if he wasn't working within Netanyahu's comfort zone. If a FAPS is to be reached everyone will need to stretch. But Bibi's willingness to acquiesce in this process flows largely from the fact that he believes he can put his own stamp on it -- whether or not the accord is ever reached. Otherwise, like the P5+1 interim agreement with Iran, you'd be hearing a lot more static from him right now.

Of the six issues likely to be referred to in a FAPS, the prime minister believes three will break his way: security, refugees, and recognition of Israel as Jewish state. Now, that's not because Abbas has accepted the Israeli position on these three things, but because Washington has. The Americans won't support the Palestinian view on right of return for refugees and have already endorsed the "Israel as a Jewish state" issue. Moreover, if the press reports on security issues (and Palestinian complaints) are accurate, Israel will be able to maintain their own forces in the Jordan Valley, an ability to shape security along the border with Jordan, and a lot of fancy technological counterterrorism bells and whistles.

Either way Bibi's a winner. If Abbas swallows some of this, Bibi will claim that he got more from an Arab partner than either Begin got from Sadat or Rabin got from Hussein on an issue far more sensitive than any with Egypt or Jordan. If Abbas refuses, Bibi will still be in good with the United States and he'll look like a hero defending key Israeli principles. Indeed, there is no reference in either of the treaties with Egypt and Jordan to their recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

On the other three issues -- borders, Jerusalem, and end of conflict and claims, Netanyahu is probably isn't in all that bad shape either. There's no proof yet, but he's likely playing with formulations that accept a border based on June 1967 lines but with all kinds of territorial adjustments and land swaps that will essentially modify those lines significantly. End of conflict (that there are no more claims to be adjudicated and the conflict between Israel and the new Palestinian state is over) has always been an issue that the Israelis have pressed for; though it obligates them to deal with all the issues, including Jerusalem. That last one's a tough cookie. But it's not beyond the realm of Deputy Legal Advisor Jon Schwartz's brilliant mind to fashion generalized language on this issue relating to two capitals.

The Palestinians are the weakest party to these negotiations and they don't have much of an advantage to level the playing field. After all, they have threatened to walk from away from the table at least twice. Lead negotiator Saeb Erekat even submitted his resignation. And, guess what? The talks continue -- even in the face of significant Israeli settlement activity.

Even though Abbas is weak, why would he accept a FAPS that forces him to capitulate? And what does he get out of the deal? First, the prisoner releases -- so hard for the Israelis to swallow -- have already provided concrete deliverables and an emotional lift on the Palestinian side. Second, if a FAPS gets done, it will produce language on borders and Jerusalem that will take Netanyahu further than he's been and closer to Palestinian principles. Third, the United States has almost certainly made clear to the Palestinian side what its view on these issues are; and on those two Washington is indeed closer to Abbas than to Netanyahu (which would become clear in negotiations toward a comprehensive accord). Finally, Abbas would almost certainly look for Arab state cover for his concessions and would press Kerry to help him get it.

And finally, what's the alternative? The Arabs are preoccupied with their own troubles; Abbas hasn't produced economic prosperity, unity with Gaza, or an end to the Israeli occupation. He's got options, yes, but none of them are any good. Abbas could quit, retire, turn the keys to the Palestinian Authority over to Israel, or start a third intifada. That's not going to happen just yet. So better to hang in with the talks through the designated 9-month period, see where the Kerry effort goes, and hope that if it doesn't end in an accord he can live with, the process concludes in a way that he can put the blame on Netanyahu.

Bibi would probably prefer that there not be an active effort for peace on the part of Kerry. But now that the game is on -- and seriously so -- he really doesn't want to take the hit for its collapse. He's a tough political trader, but the dislocation, political fallout, and international opprobrium if he's the one who's seen to have mucked it up will be significant. Having climbed way up the ladder in blasting the international interim agreement with Iran, Netanyahu really doesn't want to be in the same position again on the Kerry peace process. Nor do Abbas and Bibi want to risk the vacuum left by an outright Kerry failure.

John Kerry isn't James Baker, and doesn't seem inclined to threaten placing a dead cat on the doorstep of the Arabs and Israelis who reject his effort. But there's no doubt that one of the reasons the process is still alive is that nobody wants to be blamed for its demise.

There's quite a bit we don't know about these negotiations. There's quite a bit we don't know about these negotiations. The degree of radio silence surrounding the Kerry effort -- for a non-secret negotiation -- is pretty impressive. That either means there's something to protect or that there's not much "there there." We also don't know about back channels or the extent of direct Netanyahu-Abbas meetings, with or without Kerry.

But let's assume the best-case outcome: that Kerry succeeds in getting both sides to agree to a FAPS -- essentially a document of shared principles on the core issues. It's not a comprehensive or detailed agreement, let alone a treaty of peace. But make no mistake, if a FAPS is reached -- particularly if it breaks new, common ground on land and Jerusalem -- it will be a significant achievement, possibly even a breakthrough. For at least 15 years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators (with and without the United States) have tried; nobody has yet done it. Yes, it will be flawed and messy, but it will begin to acquire a life of its own.

At the same time -- and I hate to ruin the party -- can the FAPS become a CAPS (Comprehensive Agreement on Permanent Status) and then actually be implemented? Will the politics make that possible? Will Netanyahu and Abbas even be the implementers?

The obstacles that stand in the way of the creation of a Palestinian state are galactic. Dealing seriously with various aspects of Jerusalem -- not just as a political capital of two states; but with the holy sites, and the challenges of maintaining a living city -- is a monumental task. What about continuing Israeli settlement activity, or the tens of thousands of Israeli settlers that will need to be evacuated from the West Bank and the established communities that exist there? How do you deal with Hamas in Gaza and the reality that in the wake of Israeli withdrawal from there, no Israeli prime minister is likely to withdraw from the West Bank -- unless all the guns of Palestine, including Hamas's high-trajectory weapons, fall silent permanently?

So many questions; so few answers. And there are no solutions in sight. But, hey, you have to start somewhere. And there's a pretty good chance that within the next month or so, we'll have a much clearer and better sense as to whether John Kerry's hard-fought effort is a key to an empty room or an open door on the road to the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

This artice originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com.

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