Kerry’s triumph may not last long
AMMAN, JORDAN – Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Israeli and Palestinian officials had reached an agreement that “establishes a basis” for the resumption of direct peace talks is a badly needed foreign policy achievement for the Obama administration.
The talks are not yet finalized and seem unlikely to eventually succeed, but six months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry is the first example of successful American diplomacy in the Middle East in several years.
The difficulties Kerry faced in simply getting the two sides to resume talks three years after the last round collapsed shows how difficult the path ahead will be. The negotiations are so sensitive that he and other American officials refused to release details of the agreement on Friday.
“The agreement is still in the process of being formalized,” Kerry said, “so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now.”
On Saturday, the New York Times reported that a release of Palestinian prisoners was a key element of the tentative agreement. In his announcement, Kerry said that “if everything goes as planned” the talks would begin in “a week or so” in Washington.
Yuval Steinitz, the minister for strategic affairs, said on Israel Radio on Saturday, that a prisoner release was part of the agreement.
“There will be some release of prisoners,” he said. “I don’t want to give any numbers but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years.”
It was not clear when, or if, the releases would occur. Israeli officials said the prisoner release — and even participating in the talks — depended on a vote by the government’s senior leadership. They said that vote would occur in the next several days. They also said the two sides had agreed that negotiations would last for at least six months.
Conservative members of Netanyahu’s coalition government are opposed to making any major concessions to the Palestinians. And Israeli officials have insisted that any prisoner release occur in stages as an incentive for Palestinians to seriously negotiate.
For months, Palestinian officials have said their precondition for talks was the release of roughly one hundred Palestinian prisoners in jail since before the 1993 Oslo Accords. They also wanted a public announcement by Israeli officials that the talks would be based on Israel’s 1967 borders, including land swaps that would involve large Israeli settlements. Palestinians requested a freeze in Israeli settlement building as well. Israeli officials have said they would agree to no preconditions.
The details of the tentative agreement remain unknown but Abbas may have accepted an American assurance, not an Israeli one, that the talks be based on the 1967 borders. In exchange, Netanyahu may have agreed to a staged release of Palestinian prisoners. What was agreed to regarding settlement construction was unclear.
After Kerry made the announcement in Amman on Friday, a senior State Department official suggested that both sides had compromised.
“I’ll also give credit to President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” the official said. “They haven’t made decisions like these before.”
The announcement is a boost for Kerry. For months, commentators have ridiculed his efforts as hopeless. The initial agreement shows that after a decade of disastrous American military interventions in the region American diplomacy can be an effective tool in the Middle East.
As I’ve written before, Washington’s options go beyond mounting massive military invasions or doing nothing at all in the region. Kerry’s success shows that diplomacy can matter.
What Kerry has achieved should not be exaggerated. The last direct talks between the two sides fell apart after several weeks in 2010 over a settlement freeze. Analysts say Netanyahu is unlikely to offer better terms than that of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, whose negotiations with the Palestinians failed in 2009.
Palestinians, meanwhile, fear that the Israelis are engaging in talks to delay a long-threatened Palestinian push to be recognized as a state by the United Nations general assembly. They also fear that the Israelis will build more settlements as the talks occur.
Yet in a region of seemingly endless setbacks, a small step forward has occurred. Kerry will face criticism. He will likely be mocked for spending so much time on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But on Friday, Kerry was deservedly triumphant. For now, he deserves it.
This piece was updated and revised at 11:0oam EST on Sunday, July 21, 2013. It reflects news reports that emerged from the region after the initial posting was published at 3:00pm EST on Friday, July 19th from Amman, Jordan immediately after Kerry made his announcement.
PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at Queen Alia International Airport in the Jordanian capital of Amman July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mandel Ngan/Pool