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Analysis

BICOM Briefing: Direct Israeli-Palestinian talks announced

Key points

  • Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are likely to resume on 2nd September in Washington.
  • An invitation will be issued today by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The announcement comes after intense negotiations and international pressure on the Palestinians to agree to Israeli and US effort to engage directly toward the resumption of direct negotiations.
  • On 1st September President Obama will hold bilateral meetings followed by a dinner with Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II will also join the re-launch of peace talks.
  • The following day, 2nd September, Secretary Clinton will be joined by Abbas and Netanyahu for trilateral meetings.
  • The launch of talks indicates that some middle ground was found to accommodate the needs and constrains of both sides. The announcement is a positive sign, but there are still hurdles ahead.

What is the expected announcement?

  • US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is likely to deliver an invitation to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to enter direct talks, which will commence on 2 September. The statement will be followed by an official statement by the Quartet, comprising the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.
  • An official meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be held in Washington under the auspices of US President Barack Obama and will mark the beginning of direct talks.
  • Timing is critical because of Jewish High Holidays, the upcoming annual session of the UN General Assembly in the third week of September and the 26 September expiration of a 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

What will be the framework for direct talks?

  • Timeframe: There is expectation that the process will begin with a one-year timeframe for the completion of talks. In June the Quartet set a 24-month period for negotiations. This significantly tighter schedule indicates international determination to prevent open-ended talks and ensure the sides have a clear goal for completion.
  • It is important to remember that previous rounds of negotiations – during the Oslo Accords in the 1990s or the Annapolis process in 2007-8 – timeframes were also set but did not ensure the successful completion of talks.
  • Settlements: The issue of Israeli settlements has been high on the agenda for some time now. The statement to be issued today is likely to reaffirm the Quartet’s previous resolutions, which called for a halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. According to preliminary reports, the statement today will not explicitly repeat that demand, but will likely say that direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues should “lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation … and results in” a state at peace with Israel.
  • Venue and attendance: Talks will be launched in Washington, hosted by US President Barack Obama and attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
  • Procedure: The process of negotiations will be handled by Israeli and Palestinian teams with active mediation by US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell. On Israel’s side, the negotiations team will be headed by Yitzhak Molcho, a close confidant of PM Netanyahu, who will be assisted by staff from the Israeli Defence and Foreign Ministries.

Background to the announcement

  • The resumption of direct talks is a victory for the US administration’s diplomatic efforts. US Middle East Envoy Mitchell has been shuttling back and forth to the region since early 2009. Mitchell succeeded in brokering the current stage of proximity talks between the sides. However, indirect negotiations have produced only limited progress.
  • Israel will also see the renewal of direct talks with satisfaction. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly called for the resumption of direct negotiations in recent months and made this a central theme during his visit to Washington in July.
  • The resumption of talks alleviates some of the pressure the Israeli government faced in recent months and is likely to enable Netanyahu to more easily extend the settlement freeze without facing harsh political backlash from his right-wing coalition members.
  • Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is wary of entering open-ended talks. In recent months Abbas demanded that talks continue from where they left off with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in November 2008 and any future agreement to be based on the 1967 borders. The PA also demanded that the freeze on settlements apply to East Jerusalem.
  • PA President Abbas has been under intense pressure to resume direct talks, and without any of the above demands being fulfilled entering into direct talks will open him up to criticism from Fatah loyalist in his party for backing down.
  • However, the wording of the invitation indicates that some middle ground was found to accommodate the needs and constraints of both sides. These preconditions were rejected by the Israeli government and in recent days, Abbas said he would be prepared to enter direct talks without the assurances from Israel, if instead assurances came from the Quartet.