U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to advance a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that would forestall the Palestinians’ application to the UN Security Council to mandate an end to the occupation. To this end, senior Israeli officials say, Kerry has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whether he would be willing to resume negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines with territorial swaps.
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In his speech to the UN General Assembly in late September, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would ask the Security Council to set a deadline for ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. A week later, the Palestinians circulated a draft resolution calling for Israel to withdraw by November 2016 and for an international force to replace the Israeli army.
The U.S. administration is very disturbed by the Palestinian initiative, which is liable to create a serious Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Though it has already told the Palestinians it will veto the resolution, it would rather not have to do so, especially at a time when it is recruiting Arab countries to join its military coalition against Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and Syria.
The senior Israeli officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said that despite the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian talks in March, Kerry has resumed dealing with this issue intensively over the last month. The Security Council hasn’t yet set a timetable for considering the Palestinian resolution, but the Palestinians have agreed to wait until after the U.S. congressional elections on November 4. Thus Kerry believes he has about a month to find a solution.
Two weeks ago, he met with Netanyahu in New York and said he thought it was still possible to forestall the Palestinian bid. But he said his impression from his talks with Abbas a few days earlier was that the only way to do so was to offer a substantive alternative.
A senior Israeli official briefed on the Kerry-Netanyahu meeting said Kerry sought to see what Netanyahu would be willing to do to advance such an alternative. Specifically, he asked whether and under what conditions the Israeli leader would be willing to agree to negotiations based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps.
The senior Israeli official said Netanyahu didn’t reject Kerry’s ideas out of hand, but answered only in general terms, leaving the impression that he wasn’t enthusiastic about them.
Between January and March 2014, while Kerry was trying to get Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a framework document detailing the principles under which peace talks would continue, Netanyahu agreed to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines with territorial swaps. However, his agreement was conditioned on Israel being allowed to say it had unspecified reservations to the document, and on the Palestinians both accepting Israel’s security demands and agreeing in principle to recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Kerry hinted at his efforts to restart peace talks at a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo on Sunday. “We are not stopping,” he said. “We are committed to continuing to put ideas on the table, to continue to talk.”
In meetings with both Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu raised the possibility of involving the Arab states in reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The White House was skeptical, but Kerry didn’t rule the idea out, and at his Cairo press conference, he raised the possibility of integrating the Arab Peace Initiative, in an updated form, into the peace process.
“Imagine the possibilities of the Arab Peace Initiative finally being, in one form or another – not exactly as it’s written today, but through the negotiations, using it as a foundation and a basis,” Kerry said.
Slim chances of success
Despite all Kerry’s efforts, his chances of success are slim to none. He may be the last person in the U.S. administration who still believes it’s possible to restart the negotiations. His burning faith has led him to say things that are surprising and even embarrassing, as when he gave his explanation for why the peace talks broke down in March during his press conference on Sunday.
Sounding as if he were rewriting history, Kerry claimed the negotiations collapsed due to technical issues. “Regrettably, those talks fell apart, frankly, over more of an issue of process – the delivery of prisoners and timing and methodology – than over the fundamental divisive issues, even though there were still some differences,” he said. “Progress was made – significant progress in certain areas.”
If Kerry’s current initiative fails, the Americans will make do with a far more modest achievement: delaying the Palestinian initiative and buying a little more time. The administration fears that once the Palestinian initiative gets rolling, it will turn into a snowball that will end any hope of resuming peace talks in the coming years.
One reason for the Americans’ deep concern about the Palestinian move is their sense that it’s very hard to predict what Abbas will do now that he has decided to start taking a hard line. The administration fears that if it vetoes the Security Council resolution, the Palestinians will adopt a policy of “going crazy” and escalate their moves at UN institutions.
If that happens, the Palestinians are liable to join dozens of international conventions, seek to obtain member state status at various UN agencies and even use their doomsday weapon – signing the Rome Statute to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague. If until a few months ago, the U.S. administration’s assessment was that Abbas wouldn’t dare do this, today, it doesn’t rule out such a scenario.
Even though Netanyahu isn’t happy about adopting Kerry’s proposals, he and his advisors are very worried by the Palestinian appeal to the Security Council. They fear this Palestinian move will not only lead to escalating international pressure on Israel, but also, and perhaps to an even greater extent, create a crisis within the governing coalition, harden the various parties’ positions and increase political pressures to the point where resuming negotiations would be impossible for the foreseeable future.
So far, officials in Jerusalem aren’t considering any diplomatic initiative of their own to rescue Israel from the crisis. Instead, they are focusing on efforts to block the Palestinian appeal to the Security Council via diplomatic means.
Israel is aware of America’s sensitivity about using its veto at this time and on this issue. But passage of any Security Council resolution requires the support of at least nine of the council’s 15 members, so if the Palestinians win support from only eight, the United States wouldn’t have to use its veto.
In an interview with the Palestinian news agency Ma’an on Monday, Nabil Shaath, the official in charge of foreign relations for Abbas’ Fatah movement, said the Palestinians had so far obtained promises of support from seven Security Council members. One country that announced it would vote for the Palestinian resolution this week is Russia. Now, the Palestinians are trying to obtain the other two votes they need.
Israel, in coordination with the United States, is trying to persuade Security Council members to vote against or abstain on the resolution. A few days ago, Israeli ambassadors in all 15 Security Council member states were told to raise this issue with their host governments at the highest levels.
Just as it did two years ago, when the UN General Assembly voted on November 29, 2012 to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to that of a nonmember observer state, this fall as well, UN headquarters in New York will become the principle theater of Israeli-Palestinian wrestling.