Q&A: The Middle East Peace Process

Everything you wanted to know about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and didn't know who to ask.

What are negotiations for a final status agreement?

In 1994, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords, the parties promised that within a five-year transition period a final status agreement would be signed between the parties on the core issues, which would bring an end to the conflict and an end to the reciprocal demands.

What are the core issues being discussed in the negotiations?

In the context of the final status agreement there were supposed to be decisions made on the six core issues – the borders of the Palestinian state, Israeli security arrangements in the context of the peace agreement, the future status of Jerusalem, a solution to the refugee issue and the Palestinian demand for the right of return, the status of the settlements and the division of water resources on the West Bank.

Is this the first time that Israel and the Palestinians are conducting negotiations for a final status agreement?

No. To date there have been two significant attempts to reach a final status agreement. The first took place during Ehud Barak's term as prime minister in 1999-2000. Barak conducted both overt and covert negotiations with then-Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, under American mediation. The negotiations between the sides reached a peak at the Camp David Summit in July 2000.

Why wasn't a final status agreement achieved already then?

During the Camp David Summit, negotiations were held on all the core issues of the final status agreement. There was significant progress, but major gaps between the sides remained on all the issues, particularly Jerusalem and the solution of the refugee problem. The main problem was the lack of trust between the sides, even before the peace summit began. Relations between Arafat and Barak were poor, and the PA chairman felt that he had been dragged to the summit by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, against his will. At the same time, Barak arrived at the summit with his coalition in total disarray, and lacking any political support.

Barak claimed after the summit that he had made far-reaching proposals, but had discovered that "Arafat is not a partner at this time," because he was not interested in peace. Arafat did in fact present tough positions at the summit, refused to be flexible and even refused to acknowledge the fact that the Jews had any rights in Jerusalem (he claimed that the Temple was not even on the Temple Mount). At the same time, some of Arafat's behavior was a result of his disappointment and lack of trust in Barak.

When was the second attempt to achieve a final status agreement?

In November 2007, during Ehud Olmert's term as prime minister, then-U.S. President George W. Bush convened a peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland. The conference took place after the Al Aqsa Intifada, which erupted in September 2000 and lasted for about five years, and after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in 2005, which saw the evacuation of dozens of settlements and  more than 8,000 Jewish residents.

During the Annapolis conference, negotiations for a final status agreement were launched, which lasted for about a year. The negotiations were conducted in two channels – meetings between Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and talks between negotiating teams headed by then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala). The negotiations were the most profound and comprehensive ever conducted between Israel and the Palestinians, and included discussions within more than 10 negotiating dealing with all the core issues, except Jerusalem.

During the negotiations between Livni and Qureia, significant progress was made on most of the issues, and many of the gaps were narrowed. But the negotiations were stopped due to Olmert's resignation, Livni's campaign for the leadership of Kadima, and the Israeli national election.

As Livni and Qureia were holding their talks, in August and September 2008, Olmert presented a proposal to Abbas for a statement of principles, in which Israel would withdraw from about 95 percent of the West Bank in exchange for security arrangements and the deployment of an international force of U.S. and NATO soldiers in the area.

Olmert also proposed the absorption of a symbolic number of about 5,000 Palestinian refugees in Israel as a humanitarian gesture, transferring Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians and waiving sovereignty over the Temple Mount in favor of a special international regime to be established there.

But a peace deal wasn't achieved then either. Why?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas never rejected Olmert's proposal; he just didn't respond to it. In a Washington Post interview in May 2009, Abbas claimed that the gaps were still too big. Later, Abbas and his advisers said that his reply was pending then-U.S. President George W. Bush's declared support as well as Olmert's answers to their queries, but myriad factors – Olmert's resignation, signals from Livni, the end of Bush's term in office and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9– led them to the conclusion that the time was still not ripe.

What has happened since?

Benjamin Netanyahu, who became prime minister in Israel's 2009 election, refused to stand by Olmert's and Livni's overtures and shied away from sanctioning the two-state solution. As late as June that year, he succumbed to massive American pressure and delivered the so-called "Bar-Ilan speech," in which he spoke in favor of a "demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state" for the first time.

Further American pressure and preconditions set by the Palestinians led Netanyahu in November 2009 to declare a temporary construction freeze in the settlements, for a period of 10 months. Nevertheless, the Palestinians agreed to return to the negotiating table only after nine months. But those peace talks, launched in Washington with great pomp, met with failure a mere three weeks later. The Palestinians refused to continue, accusing Netanyahu of foot-dragging and refusing to discuss the borders of the Palestinian state. In addition, the Palestinians demanded that Israel extend the construction freeze.

Throughout 2011-2012, a few more rounds of negotiations – secret as well as overt – took place, but they failed to yield headway. Distrust ran high, and the parties were mostly engaged in blaming the other side for the lack of progress.

The failure of bilateral diplomacy prompted the Palestinian to opt for a unilateral strategy. In September 2011, they submitted a statehood bid to the United Nations Security Council, but failed to secure a majority among the member states. In November 2012, they appealed to the General Assembly for recognition as a non-member observer state, which was ushered in with an overwhelming majority.

So why are the talks resuming now all of a sudden?

Barack Obama, who was reelected president of the United States in November 2012, appointed Senator John Kerry as his secretary of state. While Obama was reluctant to engage any further in a policy that had thus far led him nowhere, Kerry saw it as the jewel in the crown of his tenure.

Following Obama's Middle East trip in March 2013, Kerry engaged in high-powered efforts to relaunch direct negotiations between the sides. After six trips to Jerusalem and Ramallah, and hundreds of meetings and phone-calls to Netanyahu and Abbas, he succeeded in laying the foundations for the resumption of the talks.

What are the parameters for the resumption of the talks?

The Palestinians have committed to remaining engaged in the negotiations for the nine months set by Kerry, during which they have agreed to discontinue their unilateral attempts to gain statehood. Israel, for its part, agreed to significantly rein in settlement expansion, and to free 104 Palestinian prisoners who were jailed on counts of murder prior to the Oslo Accord.

The parties also agreed that all the core issues – including the status of Jerusalem, the refugee question and the borders of the future Palestinian state – will be on the table, and that the agreement, once achieved, will mark the end of all claims on either side.

Kerry has provided the Palestinians with guarantees that the U.S. is committed to the 1967 lines as the border of the future Palestinian state. Simultaneously, he provided Israel with guarantees that the 1967 lines will be amended in accordance with the reality on the ground, i.e. the existence of settlement blocs. Also, the Americans have made clear that Israel's Jewish character should be enshrined in any future agreement.

How will the negotiations be conducted?

The Israeli negotiating team, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, is expected to begin a series of meetings vis-a-vis Palestinian team, headed by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, during the second week of August. The meetings will be held every week or two in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman.

What will be the American role in the talks?

Former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has been appointed as the special U.S. envoy to the peace process, and will handle the talks on behalf of the Obama administration. Indyk's role in the talks has been defined as facilitator, rather than mediator or negotiator. Indyk is expected to participate in every round of talks during the first phase, unless there is progress or if the sides prefer direct talks without the American presence. Secretary of State John Kerry has clarified to both sides that the U.S. intends to play an active role in the talks, to supervise its progress, to resolve conflicts, and even provide mediation advice if necessary.

What are the chances of reaching a final status agreement within nine months?

Both the Palestinian and Israeli sides see little chance of this. Large gaps remain between the two sides on all of the core issues, and the lack of trust between the leaders runs deep. In addition, the political atmosphere between the two sides is not encouraging of progress in the peace process. Most members of Knesset from Netanyahu's right-wing coalition – particularly from his Likud party - oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

A deep political crisis also exists on the Palestinian side, along with a schism between the Fatah-run West Bank and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Even in Abbas' party, there are reservations about holding negotiations with Netanyahu's government, and many Palestinian officials believe it would be preferable to resume a unilateral process in the United Nations and increase the international pressure on Israel.

What are the main points of dissention?

At this point, the sides have still not reached an agreement about which topics will be raised for discussion. The Palestinians are demanding that negotiations open with a discussion on borders and security arrangements, while Israel wants simultaneous deliberations on all core issues. Netanyahu has so far refused to present a clear position on the borders of the future Palestinian state, saying understandings must first be reached regarding the security arrangements demanded by Israel.

Inter alia, Netanyahu is demanding that under any final status arrangement, Israel maintain its current military presence in the West Bank, particularly along the length of the Jordan River, for the next dozens of years.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are refusing any permanent agreement which sees Israeli presence whatsoever – soldiers or settlers – in that territory.

The divisions run even deeper when it comes to the issue of Jerusalem and the Palestinians. Netanyahu is refusing to grant the Palestinians any sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem, while the Palestinians are demanding that the city lines return to those from before June 4, 1967.

Israel also refuses to take any responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem, and refuses to grant them right of return to its territory. The Palestinians are demanding the right of return of refugees in accordance with a number to be determined in negotiations, and also are demanding compensation and an Israeli declaration of responsibility for the problem.

Netanyahu is also demanding that within the framework of a final status arrangement, the Palestinians recognize Israel as a national state of the Jewish people, in order to prevent any future nationalist claims from Israel's Arab citizens.

The Palestinians say that have already recognized Israel, within the framework of the Oslo Accords, but refuse to recognize it as a Jewish state due to concerns that it would infringe on the rights of Israel's Arab citizens, and also for symbolic reasons related to the Palestinian narrative of the conflict.