United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced from Amman, Jordan on Friday July 19, 2013 that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority agreed to sit down together for peace talks in Washington, DC. This is the first time talks will have resumed in three years since they stalled in 2010 over West Bank Jewish settlement construction. The terms of the agreement have not been divulged.
Kerry began his announcement declaring; “On behalf of President Obama, I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. This is a significant and welcome step forward.”
Kerry gave very little information in his announcement about the peace talks, mostly thanking those involved in helping push the process to the next stage and announcing the name of the official negotiators involved in the talks for both sides.
Kerry stated that the terms and preconditions are still be negotiated; “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized, so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now. Any speculation or reports you may read in the media or elsewhere or here in the press are conjecture. They are not based on fact because the people who know the facts are not talking about them. The parties have agreed that I will be the only one making further comments about this.”
The agreement for a basis to begin peace talks occurred during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit this past week to Amman, Jordan and the West Bank. The negotiations will be held in Washington DC and with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni designated as the chief negotiator for Israel, Yitzhak Molcho personally representating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saeb Erekat representing the Palestinians. They will be working on the framework for the talks later in the week, with the actual negotiations possibly beginning as early as next week, and will last between six and eight months.
Most of the terms of the agreement are still shrouded in mystery. Kerry himself in his announcement said they will remain private; “All of us know that candid private conversations are the very best way to preserve the time and the space for progress and understanding when you face difficult, complicated issues such as Middle East peace. The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private.”
The Secretary of State thanked both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for contributing to the resumption of talks; “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead. Today, however, I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because of the courageous leadership shown by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here, and both of them were instrumental in pushing in this direction. We wouldn’t be standing here tonight if they hadn’t made the choices.”
Kerry concluded his remarks by discussing how difficult, but important the process will be; “So knowing that the road ahead will be difficult and the challenges that the parties face are daunting, we will call on everybody to act in the best of faith and push forward. The representatives of two proud people today have decided that the difficult road ahead is worth traveling and that the daunting challenges that we face are worth tackling. So they have courageously recognized that in order for Israelis and Palestinians to live together side by side in peace and security, they must begin by sitting at the table together in direct talks.”
Early rumors stated that Netanyahu agreed to the pre-1967 borders; however that has since been denounced. The pre-1967 Six-Day War borders would take away from Israel, Jerusalem’s old city, the Golan Heights and the West Bank. The early leaks about the terms for the negotiations came from the Palestinians as it was Shabbat, the Sabbath and very little information could come from Israel.
A Palestinian source said that the United States promised to the talks would be based on the pre-1967 borders and that there will be a settlement construction freeze in the West Bank settlements. Additionally an Israeli government official contributed to the speculation that Netanyahu had agreed to the 1967 borders. A US official responded on the rumors surrounding the negotiations; “there is a great deal of inaccurate information out there right now and our focus is continuing to work through details with both parties.”
Both Secretary of State Kerry and the Palestinians are insisting on the pre-1967 borders with land swaps. It would leave the country too narrow in the center and virtually indefensible. Prime Minister Netanyahu ruled out those borders in May 2011 after President Barack Obama insisted in a speech that a Palestinian state be based on those borders; the American President has not stressed those borders further.
Apparently, Secretary of State John Kerry supports those borders in the peace process and a building freeze in Israeli settlements that are located beyond the bounds of the 1967 borders, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Kerry is also stressing the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State.
The agreement comes after Kerry’s sixth visit to Middle East since March, where he has been focusing on the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians after a three year hiatus. During this latest trip, Kerry bypassed visiting Israel opting instead to meet with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and phoning Netanyahu to negotiate.
The response in Israel was negative to any negotiations that would involve the 1967 borders. Member of the Knesset (MK) Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud Party emphatically stated “Israel can never return to the 1967 borders….. The talks should be possible when both sides feel they have not conceded their basic positions. The Americans are entitled to say whatever they want. For instance, they could say that they think the talks should be based on the 1967 borders, but that this does not bind us. We reject Palestinian dictates as preconditions for being willing to hold a dialogue with us.” He called the talks “the classic model of a tango.” “One step forward, two steps back.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zev Elkin concurred stating “a negotiation in which you first say what you are willing to give up is not the kind of negotiation that leads to good results in the Middle East.”
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon who is also adamantly against the 1967 borders stated Israel “had insisted it would enter negotiations with no preconditions which included the Palestinian demand on the 1967 borders … and that is exactly what is happening now.”
However, Israeli Finance Minister and leader of the Yesh Atid Party, Yair Lapid was pleased with the resumption of talks and stated “Secretary Kerry has done a tremendous job in trying to put both sides together. Of course, Israel is more than willing and has expressed its agreement to go back to the negotiation table, but apparently it’s going to take a little more time.” Lapid wrote on his Facebook page that; “It is incumbent on us to conduct these negotiations like all negotiations in the Middle East — with toughness, with caution. Our marriage with the Palestinians is not a happy one, but we are seeking a fair divorce.”
Chief negotiator for Israel Tzipi Livni was very pleased about the announcement writing on her Facebook page her comments; “I’m sure with all my heart that it is the right thing to do for our future, our security, for the economy and Israel’s values. In the negotiating room, we will safeguard the national interests and security of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. To this I am committed.”
Netanyahu in his initial statement on the agreement to resume talks emphasized it was for Israel’s security and vital interests. Netanyahu has already firmly stated that the 1967 borders are indefensible and therefore are not in Israel’s best interest.
Netanyahu issued a statement following Kerry’s announcement;
“I view the resumption of the diplomatic process at this time as a vital strategic interest of the State of Israel. It is important in and of itself in order to try and bring about the conclusion of the conflict between us and the Palestinians, and it is important in light of the strategic challenges that are before us, mainly from Iran and Syria.
With the resumption of the diplomatic process, we are faced with two main goals: Preventing the creation of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River that would endanger the future of the Jewish state and preventing the establishment of an additional Iranian-sponsored terrorist state on Israel’s borders, which would endanger us no less.
I would like to thank US Secretary of State John Kerry for putting in the great efforts that have led to the resumption of the process. I expect that the talks will be conducted in a serious and responsible manner.
As Prime Minister of Israel, I am committed, first and foremost, to the security of the citizens of Israel and I will strongly uphold the security demands of the State of Israel, as well as its vital interests.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres also commented on the resumption of talks, he has been advocating that they resume again almost as much as Kerry has meeting himself this past spring with the Palestinians hoping to convince them to come back to the bargaining table. Peres phoned Abbas on Sunday, July 21 to congratulate him on the agreement stating; “You took a brave and historic decision to return to negotiations – don’t listen to the skeptics, you did the right thing. We will do all we can to solve the conflict and to live together in peace. We want to see both nations going down the right path.” Peres also spoke with Kerry thanking and saying; “There are still obstacles before us, but this is a significant opportunity.”
Israel will supposedly release Palestinians prisoners as a condition for the talks to proceed. The prisoners will include “hardcore” prisoners convicted of terrorist attacks and murders of Israelis prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians who are being held for security reasons. They will be released in increments as the talks progress; four times, six to eight weeks apart with Netanyahu determining the exact dates. The cabinet will be voting to approve in general the prisoner release. The list of the prisoners’ names will be released in advance for families of the victims to be allowed to protest in the High Court of Justice their release. Early reports stated Israel will be releasing 350 prisoners; however, the official number is down to 82 prisoners that will be released.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party is thoroughly against releasing the prisoners based on how detrimental it was for Israel in the past when they have done that. “These murderers must not be released as an ‘act of good will’ or as a prize for returning to the negotiating table.” Considering the objections from Israel’s public and its politicians Netanyahu will have a difficult time getting his cabinet to pass the prisoner release.
There has been no word what so ever about what the Palestinians will concede to Israel in exchange for the peace talks. However Israel’s most basic demand has always been that the Palestinians recognize Israel and its right to exist. The Palestinians continue to be against that most basic demand because they still believe in their right to return and believe that Israel’s land belongs to them. Hanegbi also stated; “I suppose they will also say that the goal of the negotiations is to reach a deal in which the Palestinians recognize Israel as Jewish state, something that at least at the moment the Palestinians are unwilling to accept.”
Palestinian officials denied Sunday they have formerly agreed to resume peace talks, they insist they require certain preconditions to be met by Israel prior to their formal agreement. Palestinian officials claim Kerry promised them the 1967 borders as part of the agreement.
Fatah Central Command member Abbas Zaki stated; “America views the region through Israeli eyes. It is uninterested in freezing settlements or in a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.” He also claimed that the Washington meeting is not a formal resumption of talks; “The visit is nothing more than consultations; it has nothing to do with launching negotiations.”
Hamas, the Palestinian governing body in the Gaza Strip, denounced Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in agreeing to the peace talks. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stated “Abbas does not have the legitimacy to negotiate on fateful issues on behalf of the Palestinian people.”
Despite Palestinians comments to the otherwise, this week after three years Israelis and Palestinians will meet at the same table to discuss the details of what will be a long and difficult process of negotiating, negotiations that may or may not yield results.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & International politics.