The ceremonial launch of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations early Tuesday, July 30, over the Muslim iftar meal in the State Department Jefferson room, made a photogenic front for the real brass-tacks bargaining on core issues of the long Middle East dispute, which Secretary of State John Kerry has been handling discreetly with the principals, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. This was first revealed exclusively in the last DEBKA Weekly issue of Friday, July 26.
While the formal US-led talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams were being set up for the benefit of the public in the US, the Arab world, Israel and the Palestinians, Kerry was putting hard questions to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and pushing for answers on borders, security, the Jordan Rift Valley and Jerusalem. From time to time, he brought Arab leaders into the process, especially from the Persian Gulf.
Abbas made his sudden trip to Cairo Monday, July 27 to demonstrate to the US Secretary and Israeli prime minister that he had his own lines to Arab rulers independent of Kerry’s tactics. In the end, his show fizzled. No important Egyptian leader had time to see him before the formal launch of talks in Washington or clue him in on the Egyptian military’s plans for the Gaza Strip and its Hamas rulers.
The technical aspects and negotiating procedures were left to the official negotiators, Justice Minister Tzipi Llivni and Saeb Erekat, to sort out Tuesday. However, debkafile’s sources in Jerusalem and Washington report exclusively that Kerry had meanwhile challenged Netanyahu on three core issues:
Would he adopt the security arrangements-versus-borders formula conceded by his predecessor Ehud Olmert to President Obama and Abbas in early 2009, in which he offered to cede around 94.6 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians?
Although the Palestinians never accepted the offer, they are now trying to make it the starting-point of the current round of talks. If Netanyahu rejected this, Kerry asked what alternative he had 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).
In this way, the US Secretary quietly launched final-status negotiations on future borders
He also asked the Israeli prime minister what he meant in terms of the scope and depth of Israel’s proposed withdrawal when he insisted that Israel must retain a security presence on the Jordan Rift Valley which marks part of Israel’s eastern border. Kerry wanted to know if Jewish communities would be removed and only a military presence left in place.
This question jumped the process fast forward to the interrelations between security measures and the final borders between the Israeli and Palestinian states.
Kerry also wanted to find out how much financial aid Israel was ready to commit for raising the standard of living of West Bank Palestinians.
A question he addressed to both Netanyahu and Abbas related to the deployment of an international force as a buffer between the Palestinians and the Israel Defense Forces.
The prime minister was open to discussing this plan. Abbas gave his answer from Cairo Monday night when he declared that “not a single Israeli must remain in the Palestinian state, whether soldier or civilian.” He indicated that he would not object to an international force on the lines of UNIFIL in Lebanon or the Multinational Force in Sinai,or even NATO units.
He also asked Kerry to put forward ideas on the Jerusalem question and the shape of the Palestinian state’s borders.