After several near-misses, US Secretary of State John Kerry has brought the Israelis and Palestinians closer to a meeting-point than any of his predecessors. He has been able to defy the odds facing every would-be mediator who ever trod the path off Middle East peace diplomacy, owing perhaps to his staying firmly deaf to the word “no.”
With Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he may have initially hit pay dirt. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the second hand Kerry needs to clap, is still holding back.
Later this month or early February, the US Secretary will submit to the two leaders an amended framework proposal laying down principles for a phased peace accord, which is designed to lead ultimately to a Palestinian State.
This accord, meant to be reached by common consent by the start of 2015, will encapsulate American positions on the core issues as shaped by new elements agreed in the American official’s long hours of talks with the two leaders.
Tuesday, Jan. 7, Netanyahu confided to his close circle that he had decided to go along in principle with Kerry’s plan. Indeed, he had reached a “historic decision” to put the framework to national referendum, the first in Israel’s history – without waiting for the Palestinians to come aboard, or for Kerry’s proposed framework to mature into a final accord.
Kerry’s take-it or leave-it options for Netanyahu and Abbas
The prime minister reckons that a popular majority in favor of the provisional plan gained by referendum will steal the thunder of antagonists at home preparing for battle and reduce the heat of the political debate still to come.
He is also unsure of the final accord attaining a majority in a promised referendum – especially after the country is exposed by heated discussion to all its pros and cons. He may therefore jump the gun by submitting the unfinished document to popular vote for approval before its final provisions register fully in people’s minds.
That is how matters stood on the US-Israeli-Palestinian peace track in the first weeks of the New Year. This was of course subject to Netanyahu not having second thoughts and John Kerry not being coerced into falling back from his positions by Arab and Palestinian pressure.
The Secretary has arranged to meet Arab League Foreign Ministers in Paris in the next few days to bid for a stamp of approval on his effort. Mahmoud Abbas has made this a condition for going forward on the basis of the US framework.
(DEBKA Weekly 616 of Dec. 20 revealed the nine points of Kerry’s previous framework for an Israeli-Palestinian accord.) Carried over into the amended version is the requirement of Netanyahu and Abu Mazen to deliver a definite yes or no on whether to continue negotiating on the strength of the points and principles outlined in the framework.
Palestinians: Kerry’s framework is pro-Israeli and sells them short
This device streamlines the process, but it confronts both the Palestinians and the Israelis with tough decisions.
It calls for choices on points pertaining to core issues that will tie their hands in the coming stages of the negotiations. The only option the US Secretary offers them now is to take his proposed framework as an integrated unit or leave it, although they may contribute comments and append their reservations.
Netanyahu has indicated he takes it. Abu Mazen is hesitating.
Before he decides, he must shout down the entire Palestinian political leadership in Ramallah which condemns Kerry’s framework proposal for giving Israel too much and selling the Palestinians short.
On the other hand, Abbas understands that his rejection would count as the third Palestinian veto of an American presidential peace initiative.
In 2000, Yasser Arafat rejected President Bill Clinton’s peace plan after he was invited to the White House with Ehud Barak, Israeli prime minister at the time.
In 2008, Abbas spurned President George Bush’s blueprint for peace – which was embraced by Israeli Prime Minister of the day, Ehud Olmert.
Rebuffing the Kerry mission entrusted by President Barack Obama would carry a heavy price in terms of US-Palestinian relations and bury the most promising initiative to date.
The Kerry framework meets six Israeli conditions
Before venturing on this step, Abbas is calculating the possible ramifications. For now, he feels he is being pushed to the wall by the six gains, revealed here exclusively by DEBKA Weekly, which his opposite number Netanyahu has netted in lengthy face-to-face interviews with the US Secretary:
1. Last week, Abu Mazen was informed by Kerry that President Obama had adopted Israel’s claim for recognition as the national home of the Jewish people. The Palestinian leader has consistently withheld such recognition, maintaining that Israel cannot claim to be a Jewish state when one-fifth of its population is Arab. Now he finds himself overruled.
2. The Obama administration has endorsed Netanyahu’s refusal to allow Jerusalem to be repartitioned between Israel and the Palestinians. The Kerry paper adds a rider taking note of Palestinian aspirations to establish their capital in E. Jerusalem.
This adds up to US approval of Jerusalem’s status quo as capital of the state of Israel.
3. Over Abu Mazen’s vehement objections to any Israeli military presence along the Jordan River and Jordan Rift Valley – or any other part of the West Bank, for that matter – the Americans have accepted the security imperative for deploying IDF troops along the border dividing the new Palestinian state from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Israeli troops will be supported by US intelligence systems, such as aerial surveillance and early warning devices, which are intended as insurance for the Palestinians against the Israeli military deployment serving any purpose other than the defense of this border against external threat and a guarantee of its non-intervention in the internal affairs of the Palestinian state.
Gradual stages for evacuating one fifth of the West Bank Jewish population
4. In another concession to Israel, Kerry and Netanyahu agreed that the proposed document would not invoke UN Resolution 194 of Dec. 11, 1948, which has been used by the Arab League to support the “right of return” of Arab refugees from the 1948 war to their former homes in Israel.
Instead, the framework will call for a “just solution for the Palestinian refugee problem” based on resettlement in the new Palestinian state – i.e. not in Israel.
5. No time frame has been set for the evacuation of Israeli communities living outside the big settlement blocs remaining on the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty (roughly one fifth of the present settler population).
Abu Mazen would allow three years for their removal starting from the date a peace accord is signed. Netanyahu and Kerry are discussing inserting the phrase “gradual evacuation” into the framework paper, without specifying a time frame.
6. Three large Israeli settlement blocs (Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Shomron, to which the Americans have agreed to add the city of Ariel) have been approved to remain on the West Bank. Prime Minister Netanyahu has now asked Secretary Kerry to add a fourth block – the northern suburbs of Jerusalem up to the West Bank location of Beth El – as well as the Jewish neighborhoods in the Hebron area
Kerry is well aware of the wall-to-wall domestic opposition Abu Mazen faces to his acceptance of a framework agreement incorporating those six points. Nonetheless, he is not giving up. He is not only enlisting Arab assistance for his effort, but also proposes sending British Prime Minister David Cameron to Ramallah. He will inform the Palestinians that rejection would cost them dear in the coin of European support and aid as well as their relations with the United States.