Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s willingness to “do everything” to avoid giving the Palestinians a pretext for not turning up for their first encounter with Israeli negotiators in Washington Tuesday, July 30, bodes ill for Israel’s bargaining position right from the start. So too does his proposal to include jailed Israeli Arabs among the 104 Palestinian prisoners to be released. Several threats from Ramallah not to make the Tuesday date had their effect.
Netanyahu sent an open letter to the Israeli people Saturday night, July 27, explaining his “incredibly difficult decision” to free the 104 prisoners as a gesture ahead of the renewal of peace talks. “Sometimes prime ministers are forced to make decisions that go against public opinion – when the issue is important to the country,” he wrote.
That letter arouses less sympathy than concern. It confirms the impression that the Palestinians only have to threaten to walk out of the negotiations in order to extort concessions from Israel, in the knowledge that US Secretary of State John Kerry or his “special envoys” will move in fast to save the process.
If so, how far will Netanyahu go when the substantive talks begin? By including Israeli Arabs in the prisoner deal, is he saying that the Israeli Arab population is part of a future deal with the Palestinians and their regions are on the table for potential land swaps?
If so, he is handing out freebies far too early in the game.
Because, according to debkafile’s sources, the Tuesday meeting in Washington is just a preliminary step to prepare the procedures and modalities for the process. That is all Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the prime minister’s political adviser Yitzhak Molcho, for Israel, and Yasser Abd Rabbo for the Palestinians will be asked to do in Washington.
For now, the terms of reference for the negotiations have yet to be determined and President Barack Obama has yet to sign the formal letters of assurance promised to Netanyahu and the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas.
There are reasons for this delay. Secretary Kerry wants to be certain that the talks will show real progress before he asks the president to offer formal assurances to the two leaders. There is another reason too.
debkafile’s Washington sources also report that although Obama gave Kerry a free hand for restarting the peace track, he is slowing the Secretary down with reservations of his own, especially with regard to the Secretary’s choices of special envoys to lead the four specialist negotiating tracks or mechanisms.
Leading candidate for the political mechanism is his longtime close adviser on Middle East issues Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff who acted as policy advisor to Senator Kerry. Another candidate is Martin Indyk, twice ambassador to Israel. It is not clear which would be the senior.
The White House would prefer a member of the National Security Council rather than a State Department loyalist in the seat assigned to Indyk.
Tagged for the military-security track is retired Marine general John Allen, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and former supreme commander of NATO.
An appointee of this high rank to supervise the negotiations on security matters is intended to give the US the leverage to dictate the pace of this track and override efforts by Israeli security and military officials to bring their will to bear.
The Israeli side will not like this appointment.
The third mechanism will deal with economic issues and the fourth, under the heading of general subjects, will be the framework for Arab League delegates, and especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to take a hand in the process and determining its outcome.
John Kerry has constructed an intricate edifice over and above the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a kind of US administration superstructure with Arab components, to stand over the Israeli government and its prime minister and the Palestinian Authority and its chairman.
Regardless of he powerful machine Kerry is building to steer the negotiating parties and bend them to Washington’s will, Netanyahu is already racing ahead to put before the cabinet meeting Sunday, July 28, a proposal for a popular referendum that will be called to approve an accord negotiated with the Palestinians. There is a long way to go before that point is reached – if ever.