Analysis: Israeli-Palestinian talks at a critical juncture

On Thursday 27 May, BICOM Director of Research Dr. Toby Greene briefed a BICOM conference call on the critical juncture being reached in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The following is an edited transcript of his remarks. Listen to the podcast here.

We are facing a complex situation created by two separate but linked deadlines. On 28 March, Israel is supposed to release the fourth batch of prisoners following the agreement reached in July 2013. The agreement was basically that the Palestinian Authority would enter into peace talks with Israel and drop unilateral efforts to gain recognition in international bodies, in return for Israel releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of terror offences before the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

However, there are complications. First of all we are eight months into the nine month talks and we are not yet near any agreement. This period for peace talks expires at the end of April. Both Israel and the US want to extend the talks but the Palestinians have not agreed to do so yet. At this point Israel is reluctant to release the final batch of prisoners without an agreement from the Palestinians to extend talks beyond the deadline at the end of April. From the Israeli perspective many fail to see the point in releasing terrorists if the whole process is going to collapse after a few more weeks of non-negotiations, with the Palestinians then resuming their unilateral actions in international forums. From the Palestinian perspective, Israel agreed to release the prisoners in order for them to enter into peace talks and they expect to see this agreement fulfilled.

The US is trying to bridge the positions at the moment, but there are further complications over the list of the prisoners. The original list includes 14 Arab-Israeli prisoners that the Palestinians demanded be released, which Israel was particularly reluctant to accept. When the agreement went through the Israeli cabinet it was agreed that when it came to the final batch of prisoner releases, including the Arab-Israelis, that the government would have another chance to vote. This means that to approve the original list, Netanyahu has to go back to cabinet for a further vote, and at the moment the cabinet is not minded to approve the release. There are then two issues mingling together: will the release go ahead and will negotiations be extended.

The Israelis and Palestinians are not talking to each other directly, at least not in public, and communication is going through the US as the third key player trying to bridge differences. There have been unconfirmed reports that the US may offer its own incentives to Israel by freeing Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy imprisoned in the US, in return for Israel going ahead with the prisoner release, including the Arab-Israelis. This has been denied by the US.

The big focus this week is the 28 March deadline and a deal to ensure the release happens, which may also become part of a bigger deal to extend peace talks to the end of the year. It should be noted that the focus over the last few months has been US Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework document, which started to be drafted last November, in dialogue with the parties, to establish guidelines to carry negotiations beyond the end of April. The framework is supposed to present a US view on how to close the gaps on the core issues, including Jerusalem, Refugees, borders, security settlements and mutual recognition.

President Obama has held meetings in the White House with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to pressure both sides to accept this document. It looks like Netanyahu has been gearing up to say a qualified yes, broadly willing to accept it as a basis to move forward, with some reservations. Abbas has been signalling a clear and determined ‘no’ to the document and his strongest objection has been to the Israeli demand for recognition of the Jewish state. There are different options as to how this might worded in the document but overall, Abbas has said a very clear no to any recognition of Israel’s Jewish character. This week he garnered Arab League support for this position. But the pressure is still on him and Kerry met with Abbas in Jordan yesterday.

It is possible that the Palestinians could be persuaded to agree to an extension of the nine month deadline without an agreement on the framework document, but the Palestinians would demand another price from Israel, be it the release of more prisoners or a settlement freeze. For Netanyahu to agree to any such conditions would create for him a tough political position and may cause a coalition crisis in Israel.

The parties are working intensively to try and find a way through this. If the deadline is missed this Friday, it does not mean the sky will immediately fall. Eyes will be on the Palestinians to see how they react to what they will see as a reneging of the deal agreed in July. Efforts will continue on the part of the US to treat it as a delay rather than a collapse and to secure an agreement both the release of prisoners and an extension of the deadline for talks at the end of April.

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