Jan 13th 2014

Take a Deep Breath

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
At this point we have no idea what US Secretary of State John Kerry is going to propose to the Israelis and Palestinians. Because no comprehensive peace agreement is within reach, we are told that the Secretary is working, instead, on a "Framework Agreement." Precisely what this document will look like, what it will include, say, and propose to do is still unclear.

Will it merely lay out the issues to be resolved? Will it define the gaps that separate the sides and propose US "bridging proposals?" Will it be issued by the US or will it be signed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the PLO Chairman? There are, at this point, no answers to these questions because the effort remains a work in progress. That is all we know.

Despite the refusal of Washington to release any information, the US press has been filled with accounts telling a very different story. Early on there were reports that the US had fully embraced Israeli concerns on most issues, including: Israeli security needs in the Jordan Valley, the insistence that there be no "right of return" for Palestinians, and the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish State." 

If everything were going so swimmingly-well for Israel, how are we to account for their behavior last week? When Kerry met with Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister attempted to turn their joint press event into a session bashing the Palestinian leadership, accusing Mahmoud Abbas of embracing terrorists and engaging in incitement, questioning whether Israel had a genuine "partner" in the search for peace.  Kerry was apparently taken aback by this intemperate and un-called for display of vehemence. But that wasn't the end of the Israeli counter-thrust.

During this same period, Netanyahu, speaking before various audiences in Israel, announced that he would not sign any agreement that included a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem or called for an evacuation of controversial Israeli colonies in Hebron and Beit El. A few days earlier, a group of ministers in Netanyahu's cabinet passed a motion to submit legislation to the Knesset calling for the annexation of the Jordan Valley. They followed this vote with a visit to that region's settlements pledging their intention to retain control over the area. 

Meanwhile, Netanyahu's coalition partner, Naftali Bennet, took the extreme position of announcing that his party would leave the government in the wake of any agreement that required Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Netayahu's partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, while praising Kerry's effort as the "best proposal we can get," added that he would not accept the "right of return" for even a single Palestinian refugee. Lieberman also conditioned his support by positing the notion that the "land swaps" with the Palestinians should involve ceding Israel's largely Arab "Little Triangle" to the new Palestinian entity. At week's end, Netanyahu put the "icing on the cake" by announcing tenders for the construction of 1,400 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.    

If the earlier press accounts are right and Kerry's efforts have largely endorsed Israel's positions on most issues, then how do we account for this all-out assault? It can't be that Netanyahu was merely shoring up his political position by preparing his base for eventual concessions, since the combined rhetorical onslaught only served to make concessions more difficult. For the same reason, it is unlikely that the entire effort was designed by Netanyahu in order to demonstrate to the US Secretary the precariousness of his domestic political situation. It may be that Israelis have most of what they want, but want more. They may be pressing the US to force a framework on the Palestinians that is more of surrender than an agreement. But the combined demands they have put forward would make the "framework" a bad joke, one that would destroy the chances for any peace arrangement. Given how much the US has invested in this process, it is unlikely that they would conclude it by issuing such a document. 

A more plausible explanation is that Kerry is quite serious and is pushing hard to come up with a framework that advances peace and this has caused some real discomfort on the Israeli right. 

A rule of thumb I've learned in politics is that when, in the midst of private negotiations, one side starts yelling the loudest and then takes their complaints and demands to the press, that's the side that's losing.   

This is not to say that I am optimistic or even hopeful. The way forward remains a long and tortuous path. I can't imagine that the Palestinian leadership will surrender and accept a framework agreement that signs away their basic rights. I also cannot believe that the US will offer a proposal that will be rejected outright by Palestinians and Arab public opinion, at large. The US is aware that there is too much at stake in the region and is not interested in fueling more discontent. 

That is why it is best to take a deep breath and not overreact to rumors and the hyper-ventilations of the Israeli right. This story is not over yet.

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