It was on a Friday evening, July 19, that Secretary of State John Kerry announced the upcoming resumption of Israel-Palestinian peace talks after a three-year freeze. There were no preconditions announced. Kerry had met Palestinian demands by giving his own promise — in writing, Palestinian officials said — that negotiations would be based on Israel’s pre-1967 armistice lines and Israel would freeze new settlement construction.
On Sunday, Palestinian Authority spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo backtracked and demanded that Israel openly agree to the 1967 baseline, something Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has consistently refused to do.
Palestinian officials didn’t rule out Kerry’s planned meeting in Washington between Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni. But now the Palestinians said the meeting wouldn’t be the start of a peace negotiation. It would merely be an exploratory session to try and define the terms for negotiations — terms that seemed as out of reach as ever after Abed Rabbo’s statement.
The question is, what happened between Friday and Sunday to turn the Palestinian “yes” into a “no”?
Nothing is ever certain in Middle East diplomacy, and Abed Rabbo’s objections may dissolve once Erekat and Livni sit together. But a flurry of events took place Saturday evening in Jerusalem that complicated Kerry’s plans.
Kerry’s promises to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas were based on understandings he’d reached after hours of discussions with Netanyahu. If the secretary of state did indeed commit to the 1967 borders-with-swaps formula and a settlement freeze, it means Netanyahu indicated he could live with that, even though saying it aloud would collapse his coalition.
On Saturday night, though, one of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners, economy and commerce minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, said his party would “insist” on continuing settlement construction during negotiations. He also reiterated his threat to bolt the coalition if Netanyahu agreed to negotiations based on the 1967 lines.
Also speaking out against Kerry’s terms Saturday night was Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon. In addition to rejecting any withdrawal of settlers, he condemned release of Palestinian prisoners, which Netanyahu had embraced as step toward renewing talks.
Others in Netanyahu’s circle spoke similarly, including influential Likud lawmakers Miri Regev and Yariv Levin. By Sunday morning, the Palestinians were suspecting that Kerry might have promised more than he could deliver.
Danon was a key figure. He chairs the Likud central committee, which puts him in prime position to constrict Netanyahu’s moves. If Danon decided to fully mobilize his troops, he could force Netanyahu into the choice Ariel Sharon faced after the Likud rejected his Gaza disengagement plan in 2005: abandon his plan or leave the Likud. Sharon left the Likud and took 14 of its 38 lawmakers with him to form Kadima. Netanyahu’s current Likud only holds 21 seats. It’s not clear how many would follow him if he decided to buck a party decision against peace talks.