The opening of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, as presented by US Secretary of State John Kerry with a histrionic flourish in Washington Monday, July 29, was not the show – only the overture of a performance designed to go forward behind a dense curtain of secrecy.
It is a piece for only four actors, DEBKA Weekly’s Washington and Jerusalem sources reveal: Kerry, his special envoy Martin Indyk, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
The grand premiere was the start and finish of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Indyk takes over now to conduct a shuttle mission between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Together, they will form a tight, four-cornered pattern designed by Kerry to be leak-proof.
This accounts for the somewhat eccentric ground rules the US Secretary laid down for the next lap of negotiations starting within two weeks, when he spoke to reporters Tuesday July 30, after President Barack Obama received Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Prime Minister Netanyahu's political adviser Yitzhak Molcho, and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas political adviser Saeb Erekat, heads of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams.
Kerry’s first rule was that neither party would henceforth have direct access to him. They would have to go through Indyk, then Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s adviser for overseeing the process and his liaison with Special Envoy Indyk.
Kerry’s two impossible goals
"Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months," Kerry declared. The next morning, even US Ambassador Dan Shapiro admitted he was skeptical about achieving this objective in such a short time.
An interim accord will be a testing enough challenge for all the parties, say Middle East experts who have followed the ins and outs of peacemaking in many decades. By raising the bar to a final-status accord, Kerry may be riding for a fall.
Strangest of all was his next comment: "I will be the only one competent to comment publicly on the talks. No one should consider any other information reliable."
This statement caused many raised eyebrows: In the Middle East, unnamed sources leaking information are often seen as more credible than politicians or people in authority. When the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations hit their first snag, both parties will undoubtedly leak their sides of the argument, from unnamed sourcs, along with reciprocal accusations.
This is especially true when the issues are as deeply contentious as those listed by DEBKA Weekly's Mideast experts: the borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state, scarce water resources, security arrangements, the Palestinian refugees’ “right of return,” the depth of the Israel’s withdrawal, and the Israeli government's highly questionable capacity to evacuate tens of thousands of Jewish West Bank settlers – not to mention Jerusalem.
Egyptian backing vital for Israel-Palestinian peace track
Prime Minister Netanyahu acted preemptively to blunt the opposition when he promised to put a peace accord to popular referendum. Wednesday, the Knesset Wednesday endorsed a new Basic Law enabling Israel’s first popular referendum, as promised – except that it was phrased to apply only to “sovereign territory,” thereby excluding Judea and Samaria which Israel never annexed.
There is no way the negotiators can cut themselves off from the turbulence raging in at least two Middle East trouble spots and other unresolved issues, like, for example:
1. The Iranian nuclear question. Prime Minister Netanyahu may find himself in political hot water at home if he goes forward on the Palestinian track while ignoring Iran’s nuclear ambitions which he has sworn to pre-empt.
The Obama administration is trying hard to revive diplomacy with Tehran to ease the pressure on Netanyahu to strike Iran. But even successful talks with Iran would not allay Israel’s concerns or provide any security guarantee against an Iranian nuclear bomb.
2. Egyptian and Saudi cooperation. Without the support of Cairo and Riyadh, Abbas cannot make the running in the talks with Israel – least of all sign accords.
Abbas turned up in Cairo Monday, July 29, shortly before the opening round of talks in Washington. But he failed to reach top Egyptian military figures and had to make do with interim President Adli Mansour, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and the Head of General Intelligence, Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Fareed.
Egyptian general goes his own way, ignores US mediators
He was in Cairo, when European Union foreign policy coordinator Catherine Ashton arrived.
Her mission on behalf of Washington was to try and smooth ruffled feathers between Egypt's strongman, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Obama administration, after Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was sent off last month with a flea in his ear.
Ashton submitted to the humiliation of being flown out in the dark by an Egyptian military helicopter and then driven around in circles by Egyptian vehicles with blacked-out windows. She spent two hours talking to ousted president Mohamed Morsi without discovering where he was being held.
Back in Cairo, she told reporters that she found the deposed president well with access to television and newspapers. However, Gen. El-Sisi, on the one hand, and deposed Muslim Brotherhood leaders, on the other, rejected her offer to try and broker their differences.
The general was found fully resolved to crack down on the Brotherhood and preparing very soon to end its public protests in the capital. The ousted rulers were equally determined to continue resisting the military takeover.
After the failed Burns and Ashton missions, Washington decided to send two leading Republican Senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, for another attempt to bridge the differences between Washington and Cairo.
Gen. El-Sisis wants to be president
DEBKA Weekly's sources in Washington and Cairo determine those differences stem from conflicting perceptions of their respective roles.
The US administration is groping for a precarious high-wire balance between prodding Egypt's generals to forswear violence and restore democratic government, and not jeopardizing its position of influence in Cairo’s future.
Gen. El-Sisi takes issue with the Obama administration’s refusal to acknowledge him as the most powerful figure in Egypt who is destined to rule the country in the coming years. If Washington is prepared to endorse his run for the presidency when the time comes, he will be America’s willing ally. But if not, El-Sisi will keep the Obama administration at arm’s length and remove any obstacles it may place in the path of his ambition.
In the meantime, he is sitting pretty, sustained by financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and intelligence backup from Israel.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources reveal that the defense minister is on the move. Among other projects, his intelligence services are preparing to whip up popular demand for the US and Europe to list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist movement like the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah.
The impact of continuing US non-intervention in Syria
The next phase of US-Egyptian relations will bear heavily on the course of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. John Kerry may appoint himself sole spokesman for the talks, but he can’t control Gen. El-Sisi’s coming actions in a period of fading US influence in Cairo.
3. The state of Syria’s civil war is just as relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian peace track as the unpredictable events in Cairo. There, Netanyahu and Abbas cannot miss the ascendancy of the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut bloc in the civil war, any more than the Obama administration’s long passivity.
On Wednesday July 31, military sources in Beirut confirmed DEBKA Weekly and debkafile reports that the Syrian and Hizballah armies had concentrated around Syria's largest city, Aleppo, ready for a major assault after completing their capture of Homs this week.
Middle East capitals are on tenterhooks to see whether President Obama lets Assad and his Lebanese ally retake Aleppo and rout the rebels, or finally decides to step in to save them from virtual extinction.
Because continuing US non-intervention would spell much more that a local defeat for the rebels; it would give Bashar Assad and his backers, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Russian President Vladimir Putin, decisive victory in the war, with important military and political ramifications for Syria’s neighbors.
Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians would be profoundly shaken and the Kerry team of diplomats would not be able to carry on as though they were conducting a Middle East peace project on a desert island.