Under Pressure From Kerry, Abbas Softens Preconditions for Peace Talks

With a visit from the U.S. secretary of state looming, the Palestinian president has eased demands for an explicit moratorium on settlement construction and Israeli commitment to 1967 borders; but this doesn't mean he is ready to negotiate just yet.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Under heavy pressure from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has softened his conditions for the renewal of the negotiations with Israel.

An Israeli source who is familiar with the efforts to restart the talks noted that Abbas is demanding the release of about 120 Palestinian prisoners and an American – rather than an Israeli – assurance that the negotiations will be based on the 1967 borders and will include land swaps.

The crux of Monday's report on Israel's Channel 2, which asserted that Abbas has expressed willingness to renew negotiations with Israel, is correct. But the claim that Abbas has given up his preconditions is mistaken, as is the overly optimistic interpretation of the situation.

The Israeli source discussed the events which served as the basis for the report on the Palestinian president's ostensible change of heart.

According to the Israeli source, in recent weeks American pressure on Abbas has increased substantially. Kerry, who is determined to jumpstart the peace process, has explained to the Palestinian president that he does not intend to cooperate with his preconditions. Furthermore, Kerry asserted that as of now it is Abbas, rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is considered by the Obama administration to be the recalcitrant party that is impeding the American efforts. Kerry made it clear that if his efforts fail, he won't hesitate to hold Abbas largely responsible.

As a result of Kerry's clear signals and in an attempt to shift some of the pressure to the Israeli side, Abbas decided to tone down his own message somewhat. Last week he met with members of U.S. research institutes who came on a visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem, among them Martin Indyk, vice president and director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, and presented them with a set of new, more conciliatory messages.

The Israeli source noted that Abbas told the visitors that he is willing to meet with Netanyahu without preconditions in order to discuss ways to renew negotiations. In the past the Palestinian leader conditioned such a meeting on the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Abbas also expressed willingness to return to the bargaining table for a short and predetermined period of time in order to examine whether Netanyahu is serious about the process. Contrary to the Channel 2 report, Abbas has not given up his preconditions, but rather restrained them somewhat. Abbas' laxer conditions are as follows:

Construction in the settlements

Abbas is not demanding Netanyahu to publically announce a settlement construction moratorium, and is willing to make do with the quiet restraint that Israel's prime minister has been exercising in this regard for over three months. In effect, recent months have seen a dramatic drop in new construction in the settlements.

Borders

Previously, Abbas had insisted that even before the talks begin, Netanyahu must present a map of the future Palestinian state's borders; he has now given up this demand. He will now agree to conduct negotiations based on the 1967 lines, land swaps included. Due to Netanyahu's categorical rejection of this term, Abbas is willing to make do with a commitment from Kerry that the U.S. administration's position is that the borders of the Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 lines and will include land swaps.

Prisoners

One condition remains – the release of about 120 Palestinians sentenced to life imprisonment, most of whom have been in prison since before the Oslo Accords were signed. Abbas is demanding that this entire group of prisoners be released at the same time, before the negotiations resume. Netanyahu has refused this condition; he is only willing to gradually release prisoners after the talks begin. Under Netanyahu's terms, a few dozen prisoners would be released each month, depending on the progress of the peace talks.

Kerry held phone conversations with both Abbas and Netanyahu on Monday. He is expected to meet with Netanyahu on Thursday before travelling to Jordan on Friday to meet with Abbas. He is scheduled to return to Jerusalem on Saturday night for another meeting with Netanyahu. Kerry and his staff have claimed that the reports in the Israeli media regarding developments in the process have been exaggerated. They do not believe that the present round of talks will lead to be a breakthrough that will enable a renewal of negotiations.

Kerry plans to return to the region again soon, perhaps even within a week or two. Abbas, who in the past presented several dates in June as his deadlines for Kerry's efforts, now maintains that he is willing to give the U.S. secretary of state more time. The Palestinian president's new target date is September, when the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords will be marked. It is also the month when the UN General Assembly is scheduled to convene, which may allow the Palestinian president to resume unilateral steps.

In spite of Abbas' more moderate positions, it would be a mistake to think that the Palestinian president has given up all his preconditions and is ready to resume negotiations tomorrow. Ultimately, this is a tactical maneuver that is designed to improve his position ahead of Kerry's arrival on Wednesday for a fifth round of talks in the region. All Abbas has done is to humor Kerry in the hopes that his more moderate positions will put Netanyahu in a corner and shift some of the pressure onto the Israeli prime minister.

Netanyahu believes that Abbas is interested in meeting with him or resuming negotiations only in order to foment crisis that will enable him to shift responsibility to Israel and to resume his statehood bid at the United Nations. That is why Netanyahu is emphasizing that his goal is not simply to restart peace negotiations just so that Israel can check that off its to-do list, so to speak, but to truly attempt to resolve the issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to enter a genuine bargaining process like the one that was conducted during the term of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert following the Annapolis summit in 2007. He has mapped out 21 issues to be discussed and wants negotiations led by professional teams, with weekly meetings and a timetable that spans at least a year.

During a meeting with the Georgian prime minister in Jerusalem on Tuesday Netanyahu said he wants to reach an agreement that would resolve the core issues. Such a process will take time, determination and discipline, Netanyahu said, adding that he hopes the Palestinians are prepared for such a process.

John Kerry (C) with President Shimon Peres (L) and President Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa on May, 26. Credit: Reuters
Obama tours the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem with Abbas, Kerry and Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun. Credit: Reuters

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