US-sponsored Israel-Palestinian interim peace talks near moment of decision
The formal Israeli-Palestinian meeting announced by the US State Department as scheduled for next Wednesday, Aug. 14 is but the outer shell of the secret hard-core negotiations bouncing back and forth for weeks between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, debkafile reports.
The real talks are approaching a climax on the fundamental issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. Every afternoon in past weeks, Kerry has called the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leader on secure phone lines and taken the talks a step further. Any incoming calls from the two leaders are switched directly through to the Secretary of State, an unheard of procedure in his department.
As early as June 30, debkafile revealed exclusively that the three-cornered negotiations had secretly got down to the brass tacks of core issues.
Ten days later, our sources reported dramatic progress, to the point that Kerry was asking Netanyahu for specific information on the Jewish settlements he was willing to remove in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and Abbas was chipping in with additions to the list. Netanyahu countered with questions about the Palestinian concessions on offer for the evacuations.
The process has been reduced to straight haggling, Middle East bazaar style – except that the wares laid out for sale are Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, security, international security forces and the borders that will separate Israel from a future Palestinian state.
Although Secretary Kerry has stated publicly that his objective is a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, his expectations are more realistic when he handles the behind-the scenes, real-life horse trading. All three parties appreciate that the most they can achieve are interim accords. Items bound to remain at issue will have to be set aside for a future round of negotiations at a time which none of the parties is inclined to pin down.
For now, the officials assigned with conducting the formal negotiations are not privy to the progress made secretly by their principals. US special envoy Ambassador Martin Indyk, Justice Minister and senior negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat are therefore still in the dark.
Progress is substantial enough by now to have prompted Kerry to convene a meeting of Jewish American leaders for a briefing Thursday evening, Aug. 8, at the White House.
He told them there was a “strategic imperative” to arrive at a deal soon, and said he understood the difficulties Netanyahu faced in dealing with a coalition that included hard right parties and figures. He was described as appearing “bullish” about the talks, but also “nervous” about the Israeli prime minister’s ability to overcome the resistance in his own Likud party and government coalition to sweeping concessions on settlements.
As well as Ambassador Indyk, Kerrry invited National Security Adviser Susan Rice to join him at the meeting, which lasted 90 minutes, to signal President Barack Obama’s approval.
Kerry criticized the European Union’s policy of excluding Israeli enterprises on the West Bank from grants and prizes as likely to “nudge Netanyahu away” from a deal with the Palestinians, and therefore counter-productive to the peace effort he launched last February.
According to the information reaching debkafile, Kerry’s motive in summoning American Jewish leaders to the White House was his belief that progress in the negotiations has brought the Israeli prime minister close to a crossroads. He will soon face a decision to reshuffle his cabinet and replace ministers who would oppose the terms of the interim accord shaping up with Palestinians. For this step, he would find the support of American Jewry helpful.
Netanyahu will soon need to present the leaders of the pro-settlement Israel Beteinu and Bayit Yehudi parties with the choice of backing him up all the way to the accord with the Palestinians to which the US Secretary is steering at speed, or quitting the government coalition. The same question will be put to Netanyahu’s own Likud party members.