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Analysis

BICOM Briefing: The recommencement of Israeli-Palestinian talks

Last update: 21/7/2013, 08.00 GMT

What has been announced?

  • US Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that Israel and the Palestinians have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming final status negotiations.
  • He gave no details of the agreement, but said Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israeli Justice Minister with responsibility for the peace talks Tzipi Livni, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal envoy Yitzhak Molcho,  will travel to Washington next week.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement on Saturday night welcoming the development, stressing it was in Israel’s strategic interests to try and end the conflict. He defined Israel’s goals as: “Preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River that would endanger the future of the Jewish state and preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel’s borders, which would endanger us no less.”

What is the background to Kerry’s announcement?

  • In recent months, John Kerry has paid numerous visits to the Middle East in an effort to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Though not confirmed by Secretary Kerry, Israel is believed to have agreed a package of incentives for the Palestinians – including restraint in settlement building and the gradual release of prisoner serving long sentences for terror offences – whilst the Palestinians are expected to suspend unilateral efforts to seek recognition in international bodies. Israeli minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed there would be prisoner releases in an interview on Saturday.
  • It was reported in recent days that Kerry intended to announce talks would resume on the basis of the 1967 lines plus swaps, as demanded by the Palestinians, and also refer to Israel’s demand for recognition as a Jewish state, as sought by Netanyahu, without the two sides having to explicitly endorse these positions.
  • On Thursday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas presented Kerry’s initiative to restart talks at a meeting of the Fatah Central Committee and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee in Ramallah. The meeting was unable to agree a response, but Kerry’s subsequent meetings with Erekat and Abbas on Friday cleared the way to the resumption of talks.
  • Ultimately Kerry’s statement gave no details of the terms of reference, and neither side has divulged what exactly was agreed. It is reported in Israeli media that the fine details are still be worked out in advance of the Washington meeting.
  • Kerry’s initiative received endorsement from Arab League states after he briefed Arab leaders in Amman on Wednesday.
  • After that meeting John Kerry also referred to parallel progress made on a large-scale plan for economic development in the West Bank and Gaza that aims to dramatically reduce unemployment over the next three years.
  • Until now Israel has been calling for an immediate resumption of negotiations without preconditions, whilst the PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been demanding his preconditions be met prior to talks, including a settlement freeze, Israeli acceptance of 1967 lines, and the release of prisoners held since before the 1993 Oslo Accord.
  • In May this year, a high level Arab League delegation, after meeting with Kerry, agreed to change the language of the Arab Peace Initiative from its rigid demand for a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines to accepting “comparable,” mutually agreed and “minor” land swaps.
  • The last official contacts between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were short lived round of discussions in Amman which ended in January 2012.
  • An attempt to launch a sustained period of final status negotiations in September 2010, which began with a White House summit between Netanyahu and Abbas, collapsed after just three weeks when a self-imposed Israeli moratorium on settlement construction ended.
  • The last intensive effort to reach a peace agreement, under the Annapolis agreement in 2008, ended with a substantial Israeli offer, but with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert forced from office due to criminal charges, the Palestinians did not respond.

What explains the breakthrough?

  • Though Abbas has very little faith in Netanyahu and faces considerable internal opposition to the resumption of talks from Hamas and within Fatah, he is under considerable pressure from the US, Europe and Arab states to re-enter talks. He risks losing vital US financial assistance and Israeli economic cooperation if he returns to the UN unilaterally in September.
  • Netanyahu has also been under intense international pressure, and the change in the makeup of his coalition and the Knesset following Israeli elections earlier this year may have afforded him somewhat greater room for manoeuvre domestically when it comes to the gestures he has made towards Palestinian preconditions. He has also spoken more vocally in recent months about the need for Israel to reach an agreement to prevent the emergence of a bi-national state.

What is likely to happen next?

  • Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni will travel to Washington next week to hold preliminary talks and discuss further details about the negotiations.
  • Secretary Kerry noted that not all details have been finalized and that the talks next week in Washington will discuss the final details. He said that he would issue a further statement when the talks in Washington were concluded. Alongside any publicised meetings, there is likely to be private channels of communication on several levels that will remain out of the public eye.

 


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