EU Made Netanyahu Go the Extra Mile, U.S. Threats Left Abbas With No Choice

U.S. officials say unexpected European sanctions move helped pave way for Kerry plan progress.

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Last Tuesday, after Haaretz first published the new European Union sanctions on settlements, an incensed Benjamin Netanyahu called Secretary of State John Kerry, requesting that he swiftly contact European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to get him to ease the sanctions. Kerry agreed and called Barroso the next day but, according to senior U.S. and Israeli officials, he also told Netanyahu the he must consider the European move a “warning sign” for what would happen if talks with the Palestinians weren’t resumed. Kerry said that if his efforts failed, Israel could face an even stronger delegitimization drive.

U.S. officials say they weren’t in the know of the European move, but still, the Obama administration did not deplore its essence or timing. While Netanyahu insisted the EU move would damage Kerry’s efforts, both Israeli and U.S. officials told Haaretz that, in fact, the EU sanctions caused flexibility on both sides, enabling Kerry’s mission to end in success.

The officials said the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas felt that the EU sanctions supported his position and therefore encouraged him to give up on his demand for a complete settlement freeze. Netanyahu, on the other hand, was alarmed by the sanctions’ effect on Israeli markets and on its international standing; furthermore he feared that Israeli public would blame him personally for Israel’s isolation.

Since arriving in Amman last Tuesday, Kerry held some 20 phone calls with Netanyahu, and spent hours on end talking to Abbas. When the latter said he wasn’t positive he could return to the talks, under such conditions, without the support of the Arab states, Kerry summoned nine Arab foreign ministers the next morning, who promptly issued a statement supporting the resumption of the talks. The foreign ministers later met with Abbas and reiterated their position.

After several more meetings with Abbas, the next stumbling block was the Palestinian insistence on the 1967 borders as the basis for the talks. Kerry planned to return to Washington on Friday morning, but opted to add pressure on both sides. President Obama called Netanyahu to discuss Iran, Syria and Egypt, but also to apply more pressure and request further flexibility. After several more meetings with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Kerry called Netanyahu asking for more ground regarding the release of Palestinian prisoners, and warned him, again, that failure could have severe repercussions, such as the Arab League withdrawing its peace initiative. The Wall Street Journal reported that following the two-hour conversation, Netanyahu agreed to release prisoners even before the Washington talks got underway.

Equipped with Netanyahu’s new promises, Kerry flew to Ramallah to meet with Abbas, and promised him that as far as the U.S. was concerned the negotiations would be held on the basis of the 1967 borders, with land swaps. Kerry’s threat that Abbas would be blamed for the failure to renew the talks, leading to cuts in the U.S. funding of the PA, seemed to convince Abbas to agree to renew talks without reaching agreement on all topics. Kerry immediately phoned Netanyahu, and then flew to Amman to announce the renewal of the negotiations.

On Friday, flying back to Washington, Kerry could finally change his suit for jeans and an orange sweat shirt. He ordered a Sam Adams beer, and tried to wind down after four days of marathon talks, and very little sleep. Kerry will spend the weekend with his wife, who is recovering from a stroke. In the next few weeks, the hard work will begin in earnest. Kerry knows the champion’s tip: get going at full speed − and then accelerate.

John Kerry getting ready to board a helicopter to Amman. July 18th, 2013Credit: AFP

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