Middle East talks: To turn things around, Kerry trying an about-face

John Kerry appears to have studied the latest launch of Middle East talks in 2010 and resolved to do the opposite with the round beginning Wednesday, including, for example, the stance on Israeli settlements.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry stands between Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni (r.) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (l.) as they shake hands after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Tuesday, July 30, 2013, at the State Department in Washington.

As he devised the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that are to resume in Jerusalem and Jericho Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have studied the most recent launch of talks in 2010 – and then resolved this time to do the opposite.

The talks that get under way in Jerusalem will be between negotiators for the two sides and won’t start off with top leaders as they did before. Mr. Kerry insisted on a commitment from each side to stick to negotiations for nine months – after the last round collapsed after just three weeks.

Kerry didn’t make securing a freeze of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands – the issue that derailed the 2010 round – a condition for the talks. He’s also placed something of a gag order on the negotiating parties – declaring that all sides have agreed that any news from the talks will come from him – in hopes of avoiding the rumors and public positioning that accompanied the 2010 talks.

“Kerry took a long look at what went wrong before, and now we’re seeing in these talks an effort to avoid those mistakes,” says David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What he’s trying to do is avoid some of the traps of the past.”

In October 2010, the talks commenced with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, “and when they quickly reached an impasse, there was nowhere higher to go,” Mr. Makovsky notes. The commitment to nine months of talks looks like a direct response to 2010’s quick collapse, he adds. And Kerry “insisting on keeping a close hand on what comes out publicly from the talks” strikes Makovsky as an effort to nip in the bud the kind of “negative messaging” that tainted the last go-around.

“These are the anti-2009-2010 talks,” Makovsky says, adding, “We’ll have to see if that makes a difference.”

Wednesday’s talks will launch amid very low expectations, the result of almost zero trust between the two sides. But if this latest round of negotiations has any chance of succeeding, it will be because of Kerry’s participation, his understanding of the pitfalls of the past – and his conviction that this time may be the last opportunity to resolve what he calls the “granddaddy” of US diplomatic challenges.

For many naysayers, the major difference they see this time around – Kerry’s determination to restart a stalled peace process and the discipline he appears to have imposed on the parties – won’t be enough to overcome the high hurdles ahead. Israel’s announcement this week of permits for up to 1,200 new housing units on land occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is souring the atmosphere even before the talking starts, some say.

For others, Kerry’s stipulation in his July 30 announcement of the new talks that negotiators will address all of the “final-status issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict all but foretold the new round’s doom.

But demands that the talks take up all of the conflict’s issues without the usual “sequencing” (under which the presumably easier issues were taken up first) actually came from the two parties to the negotiations, according to several sources. A key test for Kerry, they add, will be to keep this considerable challenge from sinking any hope of achieving anything over the coming nine months.

“The talk of ‘all issues’ is something that has entered the lexicon of both sides in this conflict increasingly over the last decade,” says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East-North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

According to Mr. Levy, “You can distinguish between the issues that have to be solved from ‘67,” the border and security issues resulting from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, “and those that emanate from ‘48” – the questions of Palestinians refugees and Israel’s existence as a Jewish state that date from Israel’s independence in 1948.

“In many ways the ’67 issues are much easier to solve,” Levy says, “but the ‘all issues’ we’re hearing now is shorthand for the more difficult issues of ’48.”

The “all-or-nothing” approach is something the Israeli and Palestinian leaders insisted on in their pre-talks discussions with Kerry, Makovsky says. What they were eschewing, he adds, is the kind of incremental, easiest-to-hardest approach that typified rounds of talks in the past.

Yet far from suggesting that the two sides are ready to address the conflict’s most difficult and emotional issues, an insistence on taking up all final-status issues indicates heightened resistance to an accord, regional experts say.

“I don’t think either side is ready to deal with ‘all issues,’ ” Levy says.

“When you break it down, the demand to take up all the issues is predicated on each side wanting a deal on its terms,” Makovsky says

Thus the challenge Kerry faces to overcome the roadblocks that an “everything at once” approach presents.

Actually putting all the issues on the table together from the outset “is a dead-end option,” Levy says. Kerry knows this, he adds, so what he expects to see the secretary of state engineering is an approach of “all the issues, but not all the issues simultaneously.”

A careful reading of Kerry’s recent words suggests he still intends to press for borders and security first, Levy says. Noting that just this week Kerry reiterated publicly the US position that Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law, he adds, “In so many words Kerry’s saying that the way you solve the settlements is to get the border set” between Israel and a Palestinian state.

Kerry won’t be present at this week’s talks – the US will be represented by special envoy Martin Indyk, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be represented by their envoys.

A key indicator of how far these talks get will be how much “narrowing of differences” the negotiating envoys are able to accomplish before the leaders are called in, Makovsky says.

“Clearly Kerry will have to come in at some point to break impasses, and that is going to have to be with the leaders,” he says. If the grounds aren’t present for a “narrowing of some of the easier gaps” by the negotiators, Makovsky says, that will suggest “how much harder it’s going to be for the leaders to make the final calls.”

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