Ahead of Kerry Visit |

PM Calming Right-wing Fears on U.S.-brokered 'Framework Agreement’

Most ministers seem to underestimate significance of the outline: Kerry won't let Netanyahu pull the Israeli trick of saying yes but meaning no.

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

Two days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive for another round of intensive talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is primarily occupied with trying to calm down members of his party and his coalition partners.

No one, including Kerry himself, currently knows what the “framework agreement” he is seeking to finalize by the end of January will look like. Nevertheless, the assumption is that it will include principles such as holding negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments compensated by land swaps; a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley; resettling the refugees in the Palestinian state rather than Israel; recognizing Israel as a Jewish state; and a general statement about the capital of Palestine being in Jerusalem.

Four ministers and Knesset members from two different coalition parties – Netanyahu’s Likud and Habayit Hayehudi – told Haaretz that in conversations with Netanyahu over the last week he has tried to downplay the significance of the document Kerry seeks to produce. Netanyahu gave each of them a different story regarding what the “framework agreement” would include, but the general message was that it would be a document with no practical implications, and that its sole purpose was to prevent the negotiations from blowing up and allow them to be extended for another year.

One Likud MK said Netanyahu told him the framework agreement wouldn’t even include any reference to the core issues of the conflict. Rather, it would be a procedural document comprising general statements about the parties’ commitment to the negotiations along with a new timetable for completing them.

A Likud minister said Netanyahu told him the document would merely be an American position paper: Israel would have no obligation to sign it, and the cabinet therefore wouldn’t have to vote on it. The minister said he also understood from Netanyahu that both Israel and the Palestinians would be able to say they accepted the American proposal as a basis for negotiations while simultaneously stressing that they had some reservations, which they wouldn’t be required to detail.

At a meeting of the Likud’s Knesset faction on Monday, Netanyahu offered still another story when asked by MK Tzipi Hotovely what the framework agreement would include.

“The Americans haven’t yet sent us any paper,” Netanyahu answered. “If they do send us a paper, it will include all the known core issues, like borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem, the refugees and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But the paper is just principles for conducting the negotiations, not a new proposal for solving the conflict. Our position is different from that of the Americans, and certainly from that of the Palestinians.”

Alongside his efforts to soothe Likud minister and MKs, Netanyahu is also taking the pulse of members of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. In his messages to Bennett, Netanyahu has reiterated the points he made in conversations with senior Likud members.

Netanyahu sought to find out whether Bennett’s party would quit the government if he agreed to accept the Kerry document as a basis for negotiations. Bennett, having learned from the media trick Netanyahu played on him over the deal that restarted the talks this summer (media reports said Netanyahu agreed to free Palestinian terrorists because Habayit Hayehudi refused to allow him to freeze settlement construction instead), declined to answer. First, he said, he wants to see the Kerry document. Then he’ll decide what to do.

It’s not clear whether what Netanyahu has been telling Likud and Habayit Hayehudi members accurately reflects his own understanding of Kerry’s move, or whether he is just seeking to cool unrest on his right flank. But either way, most ministers seem to be underestimating the significance of the framework agreement the U.S. secretary of state plans to put on the table in another four weeks.

Over the past few months, Kerry has been leading the most serious and significant American effort to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement since President Bill Clinton convened the Camp David summit in 2000. Kerry plans to present principles for solving the conflict’s core issues that will be more or less like those Clinton presented on December 23, 2000, but with one major difference: Clinton presented those ideas one month before he left office. Kerry is doing so even before he has completed his first year as secretary of state.

A senior U.S. official who has been heavily involved in Kerry’s effort said the secretary of state was determined to push the peace process with all his might and would present a serious document. “He is not going to go soft on this,” the official told Haaretz.

The official added that the framework agreement has not yet been finalized. Kerry’s upcoming visit to the region, which begins on Thursday, will be spent in negotiations with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over its details.

Kerry doesn’t plan to let Netanyahu pull the standard Israeli trick of saying yes but meaning no, nor does he intend to let the Palestinians repeat the well-known evasive maneuvers they have utilized in the past. It’s hard to see him allowing the parties to raise dozens of reservations that will cancel each other out and turn the American document into a laughingstock. And it’s even harder to see U.S. President Barack Obama, who will approve the wording of the agreement before it is formally presented, permitting this to happen.

Kerry will demand that Netanyahu and Abbas give him a plain answer: Do they agree to accept the principles he has presented and continuing negotiating on that basis, or not? Either reply will have dramatic political, diplomatic and security consequences. And Israel’s governing coalition won’t look the same the day after that response as it does today.

Benjamin Netanyahu and John Kerry in Jerusalem, Dec. 13, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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