July 30, 2013 was another hot and humid summer day in Washington. That morning, a pair of Israelis and a pair of Palestinians sat opposite each other on olive-green sofas in the air-conditioned comfort of the Oval Office in the White House. On one sofa were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and attorney Isaac Molho, the prime minister’s envoy; on the other were the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and a top Fatah official, Mohammad Shtayyeh.
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A day earlier, another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks on a final-status agreement had been launched in a modest ceremony and with little fanfare. It was one more attempt in a 20-year chain of dashed hopes, missed opportunities, unreached agreements and no end of frustration. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. special envoy for the negotiations, Martin Indyk, were on hand, playing the role of the latest American mediators to engage in a countdown to the inevitable crash.
Sitting in the brown leather chairs perpendicular to the Israelis and the Palestinians were President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They were searching for the right words that would imbue the negotiators with motivation and a sense of urgency, but at the same time would not generate unwarranted expectations about the chances for success. “Every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step – what’s important is seriousness,” Obama said.
“Seriousness” was the keyword at that brief meeting. Kerry, Livni and Erekat uttered it several times. But one of the participants made a remark that was something of a Freudian slip. “This time it really will be serious,” he said, possibly sarcastically.
The cynicism that accompanied the talks, the lack of enthusiasm for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and, at the end of the allotted nine months, the resounding collapse of the process – whose consequences the parties are now feeling – led to the notion that, once again, the talks had not been serious. It was alleged that it had all been for nothing, that not a thing had happened, that the parties had just played for time and the chance to hurl mutual recriminations.
But this conclusion may not have done justice to all nine months of talks. Especially to the three months from December 2013 until March 2014, in which Kerry and Indyk held intensive talks with Israel and the Palestinians on the framework document for the negotiations. The idea was to set forth for the sides the principles for a solution of the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements and water.
Copies of that 10-page document now lie in safes at the State Department in Washington and in a few offices in Jerusalem. The number of people in Israel who have read the document in full can be counted on the fingers of one hand, maybe a hand and a half. All the American and Israeli sources who were interviewed for this article declined to show the document to Haaretz, because of its volatility and the apprehension that its publication would make both sides, but particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disavow the principles they had articulated in the negotiations.
Senior Israeli and American officials who were intimately involved in the talks say that even though the negotiations collapsed, the framework document remains relevant. The reason for this, according to all those involved, is that the document, though now in deep freeze, will be thawed out at some point before Obama leaves the White House and serve as a point of departure for future negotiations, or as the basis for an American peace plan that will be presented to the sides.
“The work on the document was not a waste of time,” says a senior Israeli official, adding, “I had very low expectations from the whole process, but I was favorably surprised by what happened at the end. It’s true that there is no agreement, but relative to the composition of the government coalition in Israel and the situation on the Palestinian side, we made quite a bit of progress.”
Recalculating the route
The goal that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators talked about in that White House meeting a year ago was nothing if not ambitious: A comprehensive and full final-status agreement within nine months. Once back home, Livni, Molho, Erekat and Shtayyeh began to hold meetings. All told, they met 25 times between August and December 2013.
Some of the meetings were held in Jerusalem, others in Jericho. Indyk, then the U.S. envoy, took part in some of them, while in others the Israelis and Palestinians faced off without mediators. But the talks did not produce a breakthrough. Both sides persisted in presenting their basic positions. Each spoke to himself, and no one really engaged in the kind of give-and-take that underlies genuine negotiations. The principal achievement of those months lay in the food served at the meetings, especially the dinners at Erekat’s home in Jericho, prepared by his wife, Naima. A senior Israeli official who took part in the talks related that already after a few meetings, the two sides began to understand that they had to recalculate the route. In other words, to abandon the goal of achieving a comprehensive settlement in favor of reaching a framework agreement that would demarcate the sector boundaries of the two-state solution.
The final decision to this effect was made in mid-November, when a wave of massive construction in the settlements following the second release of Palestinian prisoners led to the resignation of the Palestinian negotiating team and the suspension of direct talks.
In addition to changing the goal, Kerry and the American team also decided on a change of style that would involve a shift to “proximity talks” – indirect negotiations in which they would shuttle between the sides and try to bridge the gaps in an effort to formulate a framework document. Their aim was to bring about a quantum leap that would hurtle the sides from empty talks and entrenched positions to true negotiations in which they would try to strike a deal.
The framework document was not meant to be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but an American position paper, based on which the sides would be ready to resume the negotiations from a more advanced point. To help them politically, the Americans agreed to allow the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president to announce that they had reservations about certain clauses in the document. Netanyahu and Abbas would not detail their demurrers but made do with a statement that would be discussed in the negotiating room.
The Americans believed that the framework document would oblige the two leaders to make a series of tough decisions at a relatively early stage of the talks. Such decisions would completely change the atmosphere of the negotiations and the political reality on both sides, and induce the leaders to cross the Rubicon and move full-tilt toward an agreement.
In addition, the crisis that erupted at this point over the prisoner release and construction in the settlements showed Kerry that time was not on his side. Seeing the potential crisis of a third release of prisoners at the end of December, he wanted to move ahead as quickly as possible.
At the beginning of December, Kerry, who was already intensively and personally involved in the talks, ramped up his involvement even further. He and Indyk set in motion a round of marathon talks – though the major American effort was focused on talks with the Israeli side.
Senior Israeli and American officials related that this stage consisted of daily work. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of talks and discussions were held between the teams, often deep into the night. Tzipi Livni, who was at the forefront of these contacts, was indefatigable. If she found a door closed to her, she entered through a window. With great persistence she was able to get Netanyahu to budge on no few issues, in order to move toward the formulation of the framework paper.
Each and every issue was addressed: borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, settlements, Jewish state. On every issue the Israelis presented their position, the Americans set forth a counter-position, and together they tried to work out formulations to close the gaps.
But along with the work of the teams, a large portion of the negotiations was conducted directly between Netanyahu and Kerry. During this period, the secretary of state visited Israel several times for talks with the sides, but the bulk of the negotiations was carried out by means of almost daily video conferences with Netanyahu. On one occasion, Kerry came on for a talk from Indonesia, another time from China. Sometimes the talk lasted two hours, sometimes five.
Both Kerry and Netanyahu are devotees of words. Kerry, a lawyer by training, wanted to formulate everything himself, and Netanyahu wanted to see every word. For hour upon hour they sat opposite the camera and the plasma screen, and worked on the clauses of the document. Members of the Israeli negotiating team who were in the room handed Netanyahu notes with their suggestions for wording of the text.
Senior Israeli and American officials involved in the talks on the framework document attest that during those months of negotiations, and particularly in the three months of work on the framework agreement, Netanyahu softened his positions slowly but consistently, and showed seriousness and a readiness to make progress.
From conversations with members of the Israeli negotiating team, the following picture arises of the positions put forward by Netanyahu in his talks with Kerry and which appeared in the final draft of the document:
Netanyahu agreed for the first time to accept the principle that the negotiations will take place on the basis of the 1967 lines together with a territorial swap. The implication: readiness to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank in any peace agreement. However, Netanyahu refused to elaborate on whether he would agree to a one-for-one swap, as the Palestinians and Americans called for. In addition, he made this conditional on the document’s including a reference to his demand for Israel to be recognized as the nation-state of the Jewish people and on his being able to announce that he had reservations about the document without detailing them.
Even though Netanyahu ultimately agreed to conduct negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines and a territorial exchange, he flatly refused to present a map or even to discuss the subject theoretically. In one of the meetings between the Israeli and Palestinian teams, Molho, the prime minister’s envoy, left the room for a few minutes. When he returned he found Erekat and Livni hunched over a map that had been unrolled on the table. Appalled, Molho demanded an explanation. Erekat chided him and said he was explaining something about a certain region on the map to Livni. Livni, for her part, seeing Molho’s worried look, tried to reassure him. “Treat it as science fiction,” she told him with a smile. But Molho, whom the White House dubbed “Dr. No” – after the villain in the first James Bond movie – was not amused. With abysmal seriousness he said to Erekat, “Just so you know that what is happening here does not represent the position of the prime minister.”
A minor anecdote, perhaps, but it reflects Netanyahu’s deep aversion to addressing the subject of borders. The prime minister displayed great cautiousness in this realm, even in discussions with the smallest forums of the Israeli negotiating team. A senior Israeli official who took part in all the consultations noted that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu did not give the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions he would be willing to make. “Not even with the most intimate team did he peruse maps,” the official said.
The Americans accepted most of Netanyahu’s security points and integrated them into the document. The clause on this issue states that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that there will be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan River as part of a special security regime to be established in that area. At the same time, the Americans left it to the two sides to negotiate the duration of the Israeli military presence. Netanyahu, for his part, softened his opposition to the presence of international forces in the West Bank. He agreed to the presence of an international force as a supplementary and supportive means alongside the Israel Defense Forces.
3. Recognition of Jewish state
Here, too, Netanyahu showed greater flexibility in the course of the negotiations. A senior Israeli official noted that at one stage Netanyahu replaced the term “Jewish state” with the term “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The framework document declares that peace will prevail between “two nation-states.” Netanyahu also agreed to include two clarifications in the document in order to try to placate the Palestinians, who have strong objections regarding this issue. For the first time, it was emphasized that the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement. The second, and more interesting, clarification stated that recognition of the existence of two nation-states will not be considered an attempt by one side to oblige the other to forgo its narrative or to adopt a different narrative.
A senior Israeli official related that in the framework document, the Americans adopted in general terms the Israeli position that there will be no right of return of refugees to Israel. However, the Americans wanted to give the Palestinians an honorable way out on this issue, to enable them to swallow such a meaningful concession.
Two approaches were discernible in the Israeli negotiating team. Some of those involved put forward a rigid stance of principle that rejected any compromise. Others argued that in order to obtain Palestinian agreement, Israel must protect the core of its interests – meaning to remove the issue of the right of return from the agenda – but to show flexibility on other refugee-related issues.
Washington wanted to insert a clause according to which, in addition to the options of returning to the Palestinian state, remaining where they were or moving to a third country, refugees could also choose to return to Israel based on criteria that Israel would set at its discretion and sovereign decision. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu objected strenuously to the American proposals and that Tzipi Livni was even more intransigent than he on this issue.
Nevertheless, in the end Israel agreed to show flexibility here as well, and to consider return of refugees on a case-by-case basis. Israel put forward an idea according to which a special mechanism would be established to which Palestinians could apply, and Israel would examine their requests on an individual or humanitarian basis and decide whether to accept them or not, according to its own sovereign judgment. “The subject of the options to be available to the Palestinians was not finalized, and the possibility of a return to Israel remained open until the end,” says a senior Israeli official.
This issue produced the widest gulf between Israel and the United States in the discussion of the framework document. The Americans adopted the Palestinian stance on the issue and initially wanted to insert a clause stating that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states. Subsequently they agreed to soften the formulation slightly, but not fundamentally. Netanyahu refused to have the document mention in any way that there would be a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. A senior Israeli official noted that Netanyahu was agreeable to a formulation that would include a statement about a future aspiration in this regard, or a general sentence to the effect that it would not be possible to achieve a final agreement without resolving the Jerusalem issue. According to the senior Israeli official, Netanyahu recognized the fact that without a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem there would be no agreement, but political concerns made him shirk any statement on the subject at this stage of the negotiations. The Americans hoped that they would be able to persuade Netanyahu to make a dramatic concession on Jerusalem if Abbas agreed to make a concession on the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. But that potential tradeoff was never put to the test.
The question of the fate of the settlements in a final-status agreement was not dealt with in detail in the framework document. The paper left an opening for Israelis to remain in the Palestinian state, but this was not a central issue. Netanyahu dealt with this issue mainly outside the negotiating room, in the form of a trial balloon with the settlers.
Neglecting Mahmoud Abbas
There were no intensive discussions with the Palestinians of the sort that were held with the Israelis. One reason for this was technical: the difficulty of holding secure video talks with the Muqata – the Ramallah-based headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. But another reason was the Americans’ wrongheaded behavior in regard to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen).
Warning lights began to go on among the Israeli team at a quite early stage of the negotiations. It wasn’t clear to Netanyahu and his aides what exactly the Palestinians thought about each of the clauses in the draft framework document that were hammering out with the Americans. “At one point we discovered that throughout the entire period, the Americans didn’t actually talk to the Palestinians, only to us,” a senior Israeli official said.
A senior American official who took part in the talks admits that the bulk of the work on the document was done with the Israelis. He explained that this was due to the fact that because the Americans viewed themselves as being closer to the Palestinian approach on a large number of the issues, their major effort had to be invested in trying to get Netanyahu to soften his positions. Fearing that the Palestinians would lock themselves into a rejectionist posture, the Americans decided not to present any proposal to them until they felt their contacts with Israel had reached a sufficiently serious outcome.
However, the Americans’ comportment brought about exactly the result they had feared. On February 19, 2014, when Kerry met with Abbas in Paris and apprised him orally of the main points of the emerging framework document, the secretary of state was stunned at the reaction.
The Palestinian leader, who was unwell and in a foul mood when he arrived for the meeting, had the feeling that the Americans had pulled “a Dennis Ross” on him – referring to the veteran American diplomat who was known throughout all the years of the negotiations for his practice of first striking a deal with the Israelis and then selling it to the Palestinians as an American proposal. Abbas thought Kerry was presenting him with a done deal and trying to stuff it down his throat.
The Kerry-Abbas meeting in Paris was a total bust. Senior American and Palestinian officials maintain that Abbas has been unbudgeable since that day. He refused to hold talks on the framework document, insisting first on getting a promise that Israel would release all the prisoners it had undertaken to free at the start of the negotiations.
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Throughout the whole succeeding month, the Americans tried to extract from Abbas a response or a comment on the framework document, but to no avail. Abbas viewed the document as part of a plot against him. Things came to a head on March 17, when Abbas met with President Obama at the Oval Office for more than two hours and declined to give Obama anything other than a vague promise that he would get back to him in a few days about the framework document. Which he never did.
Both Abbas and chief negotiator Erekat say rightly that the Americans never gave them a copy of the framework document, but only presented ideas orally. They could thus not peruse the paper thoroughly and formulate an opinion. At this time, drafts of the document were being exchanged between Washington and Jerusalem on a daily basis. The Palestinians’ response, when they grasped what was going on, was that they were being duped. So great was their suspiciousness and so intense their frustration with the Americans that they lost interest in the process completely.
“The Americans did not invest enough time in the Palestinians,” a senior Israeli official related. “They didn’t hold video talks with them or discussions into the night over every letter in the document. The result was a crisis of expectations. How many times did we say to them: What about Mahmoud Abbas? Did you talk to him? Does he agree to all these points? The Americans neglected Mahmoud Abbas throughout this period, and when Kerry came to him in Paris it was already too late.”
A senior official in the U.S. administration who took part in the talks acknowledges that the biggest mistake made by the Americans was in dealing with Abbas. “It’s true, we weren’t sensitive enough toward him and we didn’t understand how he felt,” this source says. “In retrospect, we should have behaved differently.” Some members of the Israeli negotiating team maintain that throughout the nine months of the talks Netanyahu wrestled genuinely with the issues. One day he got up on the left side, filled with a desire to move ahead, and the next day he would get up on the right side and retract. On the one hand, he understood intellectually the need to advance toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but emotionally he wanted to go in the opposite direction. One of the major problems that kept cropping up throughout the negotiations was that decision-making was, time and again, guided by party-political considerations. A senior Israeli official who was involved in the talks noted that Netanyahu measured almost every step he wanted to take in terms of its effect on the coalition and on the basis of his political support from the right wing.
Even when Netanyahu was ready to make concessions, such as on the 1967 lines, or to implement confidence-building measures, like imposing serious restraints on settlement construction, he declined to say so clearly and expressed himself in the opposite way. This behavior severely affected the Palestinians’ trust and made it impossible to persuade them that an effort should be made to move forward.
But the primary reason for the failure of the U.S. attempt to formulate a framework document lies in the sour relations between Netanyahu and Abbas and in the fact that no point of convergence was forged between their approaches. Both of them wanted a peace agreement, but strictly on their own terms. “There is no doubt that Netanyahu budged during the talks,” says a senior member of the Israeli negotiating team. “If you look at where he was at the start and where he got to at the end, you see that it’s not the same place. There were many issues on which he started out very extreme and then became more flexible along the way. The problem is that he budged in relation to himself. Was that enough? No.”
The Prime Minister’s Bureau responded: “Without going into details, were the U.S. framework to have been completed, it would have represented the Americans’ proposals. Besides, Israel could have had reservations about its details.”