BICOM Analysis: US initiating new phase in Israeli-Palestinian talks


Key points

  • The US is getting more directly engaged in the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians. In statements at the Saban Forum on 7 December, both President Obama and Secretary Kerry indicated that their immediate goal is now a framework agreement, on which a comprehensive agreement will be based.
  • The US would reportedly like to lay down terms of reference for a framework agreement even before the next release of Palestinian prisoners, currently scheduled for late December. They will hope that as a result of agreeing a framework, they can establish a new timeline for a comprehensive agreement.
  • On 5 December, Secretary Kerry presented to Israel an in-depth US analysis of future security arrangements in the West Bank.
  • The US effort to refocus the talks comes after a month of high tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, sparked by Israeli settlement announcements, and the issue being sidelined by negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme. Israel has its own frustrations over Palestinian incitement, and concerns over recent terror attacks.
  • Despite the difficulties, the resumption of direct talks in August has created the backdrop for improved cooperation between Israel and the PA. Israel, Jordan and the PA signed a major agreement on water cooperation projects on 9 December.

New target: a framework agreement

The US is becoming more directly engaged in the negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinians. In statements made at the Saban forum on 7 December, both President Obama and Secretary Kerry indicated that their immediate goal is a framework agreement, on which a comprehensive agreement will be based, as opposed to the complete agreement in nine months, which was their original goal. Kerry said the goal is, “A basic framework will have to address all the core issues – borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and an end of claims. And it will have to establish agreed guidelines for subsequent negotiations that will fill out the details in a full-on peace treaty.”

Obama said, “I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point where everybody recognises better to move forward than move backwards.”  He added that with respect to implementing an agreement in the Gaza Strip, implementation would “happen in stages”.

Experienced observers had previously noted that a framework agreement – a short document setting out the basic parameters and trade-offs without resolving all the complex details – is a more realistic immediate goal than a comprehensive agreement.

The US is now believed to be working on establishing agreed terms for the framework agreement. It is hoped this will help direct the detailed negotiations on the comprehensive agreement being conducted by Tzipi Livni and Yithak Molcho on the Israel side, and Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians.

The framework, in order to be accepted by Israel, will have to go some way to address Israel’s core demands, as articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent weeks. On security, Netanyahu demands that “the security border of the State of Israel will remain along the Jordan River,” and that Israel should not be reliant on any third party for its security. On legitimacy he demands that the Palestinians “recognise the national rights of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.” The framework will also have to address Israel’s demands that the agreement will explicitly mark an end of the conflict, with no “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Israel.

The Palestinians will demand that any framework agreement acknowledge the pre-1967  armistice lines (the Green Line) as the basis for a territorial solution, and address their demands for a capital in East Jerusalem and the need to reach a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees.

New US security proposals

On Thursday 5 December, John Kerry presented to Israel the results of an in-depth, analysis of future security arrangements in the West Bank, produced by a large US multi-agency team led by General John Allen. The central points were also shared with the PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The aim of the proposal was to suggest ways in which Israel’s demand for a long-term military presence on the Jordan River – which will be the future Eastern border of a Palestinian state – can be reconciled with Palestinian demands for full sovereignty. The Palestinians are willing to accept limitations on their own forces in the West Bank and a third-party international force but are opposed to an Israeli presence.

The details of the US proposal have not been made public but are believed to accept the Israeli demand for a long-term military presence, but to propose technological and other means to minimise its scope, including through arrangements on the Jordanian side of the border.

Need to break deadlock after recent tensions

The US effort to refocus the process  follows a hiatus in the talks between Israeli lead negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Talks were sidelined for a period of weeks following Israeli settlement announcements at the beginning of November, and the issue being overshadowed by negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, which exposed sharp differences between the US and Israel.

Whilst the Israeli government authorised the release of the second of four batches of Palestinian terrorists serving long sentences at the end of October, it simultaneously advanced planning and development for close to 5000 new homes in East Jerusalem and West Bank settlement blocks. This caused an angry reaction from the PA and the US. The Palestinian negotiating team offered its resignation, though Saeb Erekat is now continuing in his role. A subsequent announcement by the Housing Ministry, led by pro-settlement Jewish Home minister Uri Ariel, to advance plans for 20,000 more West Bank homes, was quashed by Netanyahu. The two sets of negotiators have now resumed their meetings.

Israel did not commit to a settlement freeze when resuming talks, instead agreeing to release 104 prisoners serving long sentences for terror offences committed before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Some new settlement announcements were therefore expected, but not on the scale of those announced.

Israel has its own frustrations with the Palestinians over incitement. Prime Minister Netanyahu has presented examples of incitement in official Palestinian Authority media during meetings with Secretary Kerry. Issues of particular concern are the glorification of terrorists on PA television, and official support for ‘popular resistance’. Israel argues that incitement raises questions over the Palestinians real willingness to reach a peace agreement. There have been a series of murders of Israelis by individual West Bank Palestinians in recent months, and an attack on a nine year old girl. Israel does not accuse the PA of encouraging such attacks directly, but of creating and allowing an atmosphere conducive to such acts.

Israel also feels that while the PA is refraining from actively promoting delegitimisation of Israel, for example in the International Criminal Court, it is quietly encouraging others to do so, as well as promoting a boycott of settlement products.

Underlying these tensions is the considerable distrust between the two leaders. While most Israelis support the continuation of negotiations, support among the Palestinians is under 50%, which helps explain the lack of enthusiasm for the process on the part of the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians have prepared further initiatives to seek recognition internationally if talks collapse.

What was achieved in the bilateral talks until now?

From August to October the negotiating teams met in private, sometimes several times a week, for several hours at a time, sometimes joined by US intermediary Martin Indyk. The content of the talks has largely been kept private, but it is understood that they set out general positions on security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem, with considerable gaps between the positions.

On the Western border, the Palestinians have insisted on the pre-1967 Green Line with adjustments of only 1.9 per cent – consistent with their position since the 2008 Annapolis talks. Israel has not proposed its own map but has conveyed that it does not intend a Palestinian state to be ‘Swiss cheese’ state of disjointed cantons, as Palestinian officials sometimes claim. A leaked Palestinian negotiating summary claimed Israel also agreed to the principle of territorial exchange, though not necessarily on the terms demanded by the Palestinian side.

Though not part of the final status negotiations, the resumption of talks has also created the basis for improved day to day economic cooperation. At the end of September, Israel announced measures to help the Palestinian economy, including: increased permits for Palestinians to work in Israel; extended opening hours for the West Bank-Jordan border crossing at the Allenby Bridge; allowing building materials and mobile phone equipment into Gaza; and the resumption of various joint committees on economic cooperation.

Israel, Jordan and the PA have also reached an agreement on water cooperation including construction of a major desalination plant in the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, with plans for a pipeline to carry water from the plant to the Dead Sea.

Meanwhile Quartet envoy Tony Blair has published a plan to upgrade the Palestinian economy with international private sector development. Work is underway to line up multinational corporations willing to partner with Israeli and Palestinian private sectors for new investments in the West Bank, which will be realised if a peace agreement is reached.

What is likely to happen going forward?

The Americans clearly have no intention of allowing the nine month clock – due to expire at the end of April – to run down without progress, and are now forcing the pace. Informed sources indicate that they would like to lay down their new terms of reference for a framework agreement even before the next prisoner release, which is scheduled for late December. They will hope as a result of agreeing a framework that they can establish a new and more realistic timeline for a comprehensive agreement. However, the critical decisions will remain with the key decision makers, Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. They will have to decide whether to face the political risks of agreeing to terms of reference which will contain difficult concessions on both sides.