Initiative to Restart Peace Talks Stalls Over Israeli Objections

The Obama Administration again bangs its head against the wall of Middle East peace.

Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator for Massachusetts, speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009
Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator for Massachusetts, speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Solving the rift between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is difficult enough when both are in the middle of a diplomatic session. But it is even harder when the two sides cannot agree on the terms of diplomacy to begin with.

This is what Secretary of State John Kerry is experiencing in the Holy Land only a few months on the job and despite three high level visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

No one assumed that getting the lagging peace process off the ground would be an easy task. Kerry, during his most recent visits to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, acknowledged as much when he told a news conference that everyone, even he, had a lot of homework to do before talks could resume.

It was a polite way of saying that Israel and the Palestinians are still far apart on the issues that have long divided them, including the final borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements.

But it turns out those are the least of Kerry’s worries. A few days after he stepped on the plane to return to the United States, a senior Israeli official vented to Israel’s leading newspaper Haaretz that the American secretary’s strategy for getting talks started is unacceptable. “Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation,” the unanimous Israeli official said. “He thinks that the conflict is primarily over territory […] and that is wrong.”

Recognizing that Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes the nationalist Jewish Home party, is highly unlikely to accept another freeze in settlement building in the West Bank, Kerry reportedly told the Israeli prime minister as well as Abbas that he wanted the two sides to discuss borders and security before anything else.

By tackling where the border between Israel and Palestine should be, the broader issue of settlements — that is, which settlements Israel could build up and which it needs to evacuate — would be permanently, if indirectly, resolved. Who gets to control Jerusalem and how to address the grievances of Palestinian refugees would be preserved for later discussions, when enough good will and momentum is produced.

The problem is that Netanyahu’s government is not interested in Kerry’s proposal. At least that is the view of the senior official who spoke to Haaretz.

For a man who has never been particularly keen on establishing a Palestinian state to begin with, Netanyahu likely fears that discussing border issues would give Mahmoud Abbas a very public diplomatic victory, suggesting for the first time the size and shape of a sovereign Palestinian state. In the zero sum world of Middle East peace negotiations, a gain by the Palestinians will be perceived by Netanyahu and his advisors as a loss for Israel and a weakening of its bargaining position.

The Palestinian Authority has argued that the Israeli-Palestinian border should be based on what the area looked like before June 1967 when Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the Six Day War. Israel’s right, however, sees that proposition as something that is subject to negotiations, not a Palestinian dictate that it needs to meet before talks can begin. Any concession could split Netanyahu’s coalition.

Rebuked, the Obama Administration once again finds itself in a terrible position, unable to restart direct diplomacy in a conflict that has embarrassed nearly every single American president since Lyndon Johnson.

In a way, the wall that President Barack Obama is trying to break through is much taller and denser than the one his predecessors had to deal with. Instead of trying to mediate a comprehensive resolution between Israeli and Palestinian views, Obama is trying to answer a more fundamental question: how can the two-state solution be salvaged when it is virtually impossible to discuss where the borders between such two states should be?