For Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to start, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has dragged the stalemated peace process one step further than anyone else, needs to take two more very tricky steps to make it happen.
1. He must send the two teams invitations. The Israeli team will be headed by Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's political adviser Yitzhak Molcho; and the Palestinian team by Mahmoud Abbas’ senior adviser Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee.
Those invitations have not yet been sent out.
2. That is because Kerry is still working on two letters containing US assurances of understanding for President Barack Obama to sign before they are posted separately to the two addressees, Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA Chairman Abbas.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources disclose that the two assurances are also mutually contradictory.
Given the contortions required, the secretary of state is drafting the letters in person. He knows that a single untoward word or misplaced comma could shatter the fragile edifice he has begun to shape and the whole process would fall back to the starting point.
So the invitations to the Israeli and Palestinian delegations will not be sent out – and the negotiations will not start – before the two letters are received and confirmed.
In the meantime, it was reported in Jerusalem Thursday, July 25, that the Israeli and Palestinian teams will meet in Washington next Tuesday – not for substantive talks but only for a preliminary exchange on modalities and procedures. It also turns out that when the real negotiations do get underway, the tendency is to pick a Middle East venue, possibly Jerusalem.
Obama’s letters must both endorse and duck the 1967 borders
Kerry called on Obama at the White House Monday when he returned from his sixth trip to the Middle East after announcing on July 19 a tentative agreement by both sides to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations “very soon.”
The letter Kerry is drafting for Netanyahu will promise US cooperation for establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, defining the former as the national state of the Palestinian people and the latter as the national state of the Jewish people while pledging to safeguard legitimate Israeli security needs.
The negotiations will based on the 1967 borders although the US president will acknowledge the need for new borders, taking into account Israel’s security needs and the demographic changes on the ground since 1967, i.e. Israeli West Bank settlements.
The letter to the Palestinians will cite the 1967 borders as the basis for the negotiations to establish an independent Palestinian state and refer also to the release of an unspecified number of Palestinians in Israel jails.
In respect of Israeli reservations, this Obama letter does not incorporate Palestinian demands for Israeli commitments to withdraw to the 1967 lines and freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s territorial concessions
Despite the delayed formalities in Washington, the two parties and the top US diplomat have not been idle.
DEBKA Weekly's sources in Washington and Jerusalem report that Kerry, Netanyahu and Abbas are locked in behind-the-scenes interchanges, carried forward by the Secretary who has been nudging both toward approaching the core issues of the conflict.
This week, Kerry asked Netanyahu for three answers:
Would he adopt the security arrangements-versus-borders formula presented by his predecessor Ehud Olmert to President Obama and Abbas in early 2009, in which he offered to cede close to 94.6 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians?
Although the Palestinians never accepted the offer, they want to use it as the starting-point for the next round of talks. If Netanyahu rejects this, Kerry asks what alternative he has in mind in terms of territory he is prepared to cede on the West Bank – bearing in mind that Jewish settlements stand on app. 9.8 percent of the West Bank (not counting Jerusalem).
The Israeli prime minister was also asked for figures on the scope and depth of Israel’s withdrawal from the Jordan Rift Valley (a strip of land along the Jordan River which marks the border between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan).
Netanyahu has said that Israel must retain a military presence on the Jordan Rift Valley. Kerry wants to know if he accepts the removal of Jewish communities, leaving behind only military presence.
Abbas must stop anti-Israel steps through UN
Netanyahu’s answers would give Kerry the tool for predetermining the outcome of negotiations on the juxtaposition between security arrangements and the demarcation of borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state.
He also wanted to find out how much financial aid Israel was committing to for raising the standard of living of West Bank Palestinians.
Turning to the Palestinian leader, Kerry asked how Abbas envisions solutions to two highly sensitive issues – Jerusalem and the borders of the future Palestinian state, taking into account that more than half a half a million Jews live in towns and villages up and down Judea and Samaria.
He also indicated that the Palestinian leader would be required to desist from his anti-Israel campaign through the UN and other international institutions.
DEBKA Weekly reveals that Kerry is preparing a set of four interlinked diplomatic mechanisms, political, economic, security and general, for thrashing out the four main subjects at issue under close US supervision.
High-powered US officials and officers recruited
One of the candidates mentioned to oversee the civilian segment is Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff who acted as policy advisor to Senator Kerry. He has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues.
Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group
Another candidate is the veteran American diplomat, Martin Sean Indyk, 62, Vice President and Director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Indyk has served twice as US Ambassador to Israel as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration.
The name of Rob Malley, former President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council Middle East adviser, has also been mentioned in the context of the team advising the peace negotiations.
Malley would give the White House standing in the hitherto exclusive State Department project.
An American general will run the military segment. The name of John Allen, a retired Marine general and the former US commander in Afghanistan, is bruited.
The State Department insisted Wednesday, July 24, that decisions on the envoy and negotiating team were still in the works and not final.
US diplomats will superintend every aspect of the talks
Kerry has crafted his four-part construct to superintend every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. US diplomacy will jog both Netanyahu and Abbas back into line whenever they look like moving away from the course predetermined by Washington.
It is also designed as Kerry’s framework for introducing the Arab League and Gulf Arab nations into the peace process. He envisages their role to be integral.
Core elements of the four mechanisms have been on the job in Washington for the past six weeks. When the talks begin in earnest, they will be filled out and relocated to Jerusalem whence they will work closely with Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials.
Some US official sources told DEBKA Weekly that President Obama had given Kerry a free hand to orchestrate the Middle East peace process – in sharp contrast to his hands-on approach to every foreign policy step pursued by Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State.
In his second term, the US president appears determined to stay out of foreign policy-making for the Middle East. This decision will be tested if Kerry’s initiative is a success.
Kerry, Netanyahu and Abbas have kept the lid tightly on any progress they have made so far.
Our sources have learned that they are of one mind on the critical decision not to seek a final-status accord in the coming negotiations, but go for the partial goal of a set of interim agreements to enable a Palestinian state to be established alongside the State of Israel.
Even a partial accord would require Israel to pull out and hand over extensive areas of the West Bank and evacuate between 30-40 small settlements with a total population of 30,000-40,000 Israelis.
No final status accords. Ergo, no referendum
The negotiations overseen by Kerry will not address the issues of the two states’ final borders or Jerusalem sovereignty – although a partial modus vivendi may be broached. The Palestinian refugee issue will also be held over to a future date.
Interestingly, both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders pledged this week to put to referendum by their respective peoples any final-status peace accord achieved in negotiations.
But what about interim accords that also entail major concessions, including the handover of major territorial assets and evacuation of entire communities?
Which elected bodies will be required to endorse or even ratify these transactions? Or will the two governments dispense with such niceties and simply go ahead with implementation on the grounds that the accords negotiated thus far are not the complete and final product?
Both Netanyahu and Abu Mazen no doubt hope this device will serve them as a tactic for avoiding the opposition lying in wait to challenge them.