Benjamin Netanyahu's Indecision Is Roadblock to Peace Push

If Premier Makes Up His Mind, John Kerry Could Still Succeed

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 09, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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The latest bit of conventional wisdom is a new peace plan being floated by journalists — Ari Shavit, Jeffrey Goldberg and Ben Caspit have all raised it — that Kerry give up trying to resolve the conflict and look for interim steps. For example, Israel could freeze new settlement construction beyond the security barrier, while the Palestinians focus on state-building. That would build mutual confidence.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu can’t freeze construction indefinitely without an end game in sight, and the Palestinians can’t maintain the state-building they’re already doing without a political horizon. Pentagon officials have been warning for three years that the quiet maintained on the West Bank since 2006 would break down without visible diplomatic progress toward statehood. Now, as Israel’s military chief of Central Command said on June 19, the breakdown has begun. It’s too late for interim steps.

Kerry’s problem is how to assure Abbas that negotiations will yield an outcome he can live with, given Bibi’s refusal to commit. That involves some very complicated negotiating. That’s why it’s taking so long.

Kerry is working with three variables: borders, settlements and prisoners. The idea of freezing settlement construction was raised by President Obama in 2009 as a way to entice the Palestinians back to the table without a Netanyahu commitment to the 1967 lines. The logic was that Israel had already agreed to a freeze in the 2003 road map. But Israel resisted. Bibi finally agreed to a 10-month freeze, except for East Jerusalem and except for projects already underway. It took nine months to convince Abbas to accept that as a freeze. Talks lasted a month.

Abbas raised the issue of prisoners this year as a way to keep face while returning to open-ended talks. He wants Israel to free 120 prisoners held for crimes committed before the 1993 Oslo accords. Palestinians consider them warriors. Israel considers them terrorists.

According to Israeli sources quoted in various media, Kerry is assembling a package of partial concessions for Abbas. After talking with Bibi he’s concluded that Israel can’t commit to the 1967 lines but America can. Israel will again freeze construction, but again partially, and this time without declaring it. As for prisoners, Bibi wants to release them in batches as talks progress, to ensure the Palestinians don’t bolt at the first snag. Abbas wants them all at once. That’s what they’re working on now.

How do we know it’s working? Well, Bibi has sent two signals in recent days that seem enormously significant. On June 27 a senior Likud minister said, presumably with authorization from the boss, that Israel insists on a long-term troop presence along the Jordan River even if it doesn’t retain sovereignty. A year ago Bibi was saying he wanted permanent control of the entire Jordan Valley, not just the river edge. That’s huge.

The minister also said Netanyahu was willing to concede more than 90% of the West Bank if Israel’s security needs were met. That’s close to the figure Barak offered at Camp David. It’s not a deal, but it’s a plausible opener. Moreover, once you say 90%, the question becomes, 90% of what? The answer is, 90% of the area within the 1967 lines.

Abbas replied a few days later, on July 2, saying he was “optimistic” about Kerry’s mission. As for negotiating with Bibi, “there is nothing keeps us from meeting. We are prepared to meet at any time. We are determined to reach peace with the Israelis. They are our neighbors and we recognize that. They and we need to live in security and stability.”

Is that optimistic enough for you?

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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