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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) hosts an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (3rd R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (2nd R) at the State Department in Washington July 29, 2013. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) hosts an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (3rd R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (2nd R) at the State Department in Washington July 29, 2013. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

MICHAEL BELL

Mideast talks: tenuous positions, interim solutions Add to ...

The latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations wouldn’t be taking place without intense U.S. pressure. The details of that pressure haven’t been fully clear, but it was almost certainly considerable – for example, it reportedly included cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it participated.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is playing his cards close to his chest and those in the know are few. He has enlisted Martin Indyk, hitherto head of the foreign-policy program at the Brookings Institution, and Jonathan Schwartz, from the State Department’s legal bureau, for his very small team. Both are eminently well qualified. With Mr. Kerry in the lead, they will act as “facilitators.”

That label does not mean a light touch, given Mr. Kerry’s efforts over the past several months. Nor does it mean the Americans are devoid of their own ideas. Expect this team to be involved in virtually every detail. On Tuesday, the administration sent “letters of assurance” to the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority. They won’t be made public because of their delicacy, but are said to contain key U.S. provisos: negotiations based on the 1967 ceasefire lines, land swaps to accommodate new demographic realities (meaning major settlement blocks) and two states for two peoples (meaning recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and refugee return to be focused on the new Palestinian state, not on Israel).

The Americans have their hands full. There has been no agreement on terms of reference for negotiations. Palestinians insist on discussing border issues first, including Jerusalem; the Israelis insist on security co-ordination. Most analysts see subsequent agreement on any final-status issues – land, boundaries, Jerusalem, settlements, water, refugees, security – unlikely in the extreme. They are correct, so different are the Israeli and Palestinian views, reinforced by narrative, ideology, mistrust and the imperatives of realpolitik.

On peace process issues, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position within his coalition government is tenuous. Unconstrained, he might not have chosen this web of uncertainty. However, he is concerned about Israel’s deteriorating position at the United Nations (as the fall General Assembly approaches), its worsening relations with the European Union and, in the long view, demographic imperatives leading to a single, binational state.

Mr. Netanyahu’s challenges look simple compared to those of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Although Mr. Abbas’s regime has achieved the prisoner release he wanted as a precondition for talks, his regime is considered weak and inefficient. Could it be otherwise under the circumstances? Progress will be contingent on his ability to sustain difficult concessions on core issues. His Hamas rivals have lost influence due to the overthrow of their sister organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, but they continue to wield considerable influence, and could well sabotage peace efforts from within.

The odds on overcoming these challenges are remote. The process is likely to drag on well beyond Washington’s nine-month target. Both sides will try to bolster their international reputations while avoiding responsibility for failure. This is a well-established pattern.

At the outset of talks, the prospect of a long-term interim settlement doesn’t look like an option. Tabled now, it would certainly be loudly rejected, particularly by the Palestinians, who, as the weaker party, fear that “interim” would become “permanent.” However, in lieu of a comprehensive final-status agreement on all issues, an interim agreement does offer a possible way out.

Such an agreement would avoid taking definitive steps toward ultimate resolution of the most contentious issues. A bona fide Palestinian state could be established over the bulk of the West Bank, with sole governance responsibility. A full international diplomatic presence in Palestine could be assured.

Settlements less critical to the fulfilment of the “Greater Israel” narrative, certainly those outside the settlement blocks, could be dismantled. Israeli troops could retain a defined but limited presence in the Jordan Valley. And Jerusalem could be overseen along the lines of the co-governance option put forward by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, derivative of proposals developed by the University of Windsor-based Jerusalem Old City Initiative.

Negotiations for a long-term interim agreement would still be a problematic, second-best solution. All else failing, however, it could prove to be the ultimate recourse.

Michael Bell is former Canadian ambassador to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, and Paul Martin (Sr.) Scholar in International Relations at the University of Windsor.

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