As Kerry coaxes Israel toward peace, EU gives hard shove

As Secretary of State Kerry shuttled between the Israelis and Palestinians this week, the EU issued sanctions on Israeli activity in the Palestinian territories. 

Mandel Ngan/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to board a flight to reach the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he is expected to hold new talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, July 19, in the Jordanian capital Amman. Kerry stepped up his drive Friday to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, facing Palestinian reluctance over his formula for resuming peace talks after nearly five years.

By some accounts, US Secretary of State John Kerry was on the brink of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table as he closed his sixth trip to the region today.

But while Mr. Kerry was trying to coax the estranged parties back together with shuttle diplomacy, the Europeans have delivered a hard shove to Israel, today publishing new guidelines that amount to sanctions on Israeli activity in the Palestinian territories. Some say the harsher tactic is exactly what’s needed for the stronger player in the conflict. The US and European Union's different approaches get to the heart of the debate on how best to bring the two sides back together – and which side needs more goading. 

“This traveling between one leader to another leader without applying meaningful pressure on Israel will do nothing,” says Alon Liel, a veteran Israeli diplomat. “Israel is the strong side, the occupier, and Israel has to make the gestures. You cannot enhance peace here without applying serious pressure.”

But many Israelis say the EU move comes from a misguided perception that Israel, rather than the Palestinian Authority, is to blame for the lack of tangible results since the 1993 Oslo Accords. It also reflects a failure to realize that putting pressure on Israel backfires – a mistake the Obama administration made early on and has now corrected, says Amir Mizroch, editor of the English edition of Israel’s daily Hayom newspaper.

“The US has finally come around to the understanding after a couple years of the Obama administration that if you want Israel to make peace and take the risks of making peace, you don’t want to push them into a corner, you need to hug them. [Give them] a bear hug,” he says. “That’s what Obama is doing.”

No starting line

The main obstacle to resuming peace talks appears to be disagreement over where to begin negotiations. Palestinians would like a guarantee from Israel that the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories will form the basis of negotiation, with the understanding that a final deal will incorporate mutually agreed land swaps.

Israel has steadily expanded its presence well beyond those lines since the 1967 war, annexing East Jerusalem and establishing dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Today nearly 600,000 Israelis live over the 1967 borders, also known as the Green Line. The controversial EU guidelines published today declare that Europe does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the 1967 borders, and forbid EU organizations to work with Israeli entities that are based in or operate in those areas, with few exceptions.

It is widely accepted by those who support a two-state solution that any final peace deal would involve 1967 borders with land swaps. But it is politically difficult, if not impossible, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to such a starting point – a key member of his governing coalition, Naftali Bennett, has vowed to quit the government if Mr. Netanyahu agrees to negotiate with the Palestinians from such a starting point.

Political scientist Abraham Diskin, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says it would be wrong, however, to identify Bennett as the spoiler in Kerry’s efforts to resume talks.

“It’s very clear where the obstacle is. It started before Bennett dreamt to be part of politics,” says Prof. Diskin, noting the failure of peace efforts under dovish Israeli leaders such as Yossi Beilin and Ehud Barak, which he blames on the Palestinian side. “We have experience – we cannot just ignore what happened in the past and say … we were at the edge of peace and now because of Bennett we’re not going to have negotiations, we’re not going to have peace.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in the reverse situation. It would be “political suicide” for him if he were to return to negotiations without an Israeli guarantee regarding 1967 borders as a basis of negotiation, says Hani al-Masri, head of the Palestinian think tank Badael in Ramallah, West Bank. Mr. Abbas has already backed down from a previous demand that Israel halt all settlement growth and release prisoners who have been held since before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

“If he doesn’t insist on [1967 borders], what can he achieve, how can he explain to his people about why he is participating in negotiations, when the Israeli government shows every day that they are against peace?” asks Mr. Masri.

Mr. Liel compares the 1967 borders as a starting line in an Olympic 100-meter dash, and Israel’s refusal of accepting any such parameters as an effort to get a head start in the race

“The whole world has a starting line for solving this conflict and it’s '67 borders,” he says. “If you cannot agree on a starting line, there is no race.”

Plan B

While some see the Palestinians as having the most to lose if Kerry fails to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, Masri says they could pursue action outside the framework of negotiations, such as they did last fall with their successful bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations.

“It is not enough to resume negotiations and wait for Israel. It is good for the Palestinians to adopt another political track,” including redoubling their efforts to bridge the divide between Abbas’s Fatah faction in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

As of press time, Kerry was reportedly planning on meeting with Abbas once more before leaving the region. But the feeling in Israel's government seems to be that Europe has let Israel down and Kerry is failing. Even if Kerry’s dogged efforts fail to herd the two sides back to the negotiating table this week or later this year, however, perhaps they will find a way to engage directly, as they did leading up to the Oslo Accords.

“It kind of feels like we’re stuck with you Palestinians in the middle,” says Mr. Mizroch, but that’s not a bad thing, he adds. “When the two sides really did want peace, it was done on their own.”

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