The rumblings began with President Obama’s new Secretary of State John Kerry after he had spoken with Israeli President Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Palestinian President Abbas, and Jordanian King Abdullah II. Secretary Kerry was simply exuberant when relating how both President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu from Israel had assured him during their discussion that they were willing to restart peace talks. Secretary Kerry was equally effusive about hearing from both Palestinian President Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II that they were optimistic about resuming the peace talks provided the Israelis proved willing to meet their hopes by showing a willingness to meet with them with respect for their position and would treat them with fairness. To listen to these responses one might find it difficult to understand why talks have not simply been held all along. President Obama during his State of the Union speech alluded to the peace talks being resumed between Israel and the Palestinians placing some urgency on that desire but he did not enter any in depth comments. Despite Secretary Kerry’s exuberance, it appeared that President Obama might have detected some language that caused him lower expectations. So, which one is correct, a cautious President or an overly anxious new Secretary of State? The answer comes once one translates the responses Secretary of State Kerry received and what they really mean.
Let us begin with the Israeli responses. Secretary of State Kerry spoke initially with Israeli President Peres who was one of the initiators of the Oslo Accords and has always proven to be more optimistic than practical when the subject is the prospect for reaching a peace accord. President Peres’s entire legacy is wrapped and intertwined with the Oslo Accords and the success of the peace initiatives. President Peres has been the go-to Israeli even when not holding any office when Europeans or the media need a pro-peace statement regardless of the actual situation, which explains his stating that he has high expectations that a peace agreement is close and can be attained easily once the peace process resumes. The more down to Earth Prime Minister Netanyahu also is extremely willing to resume the peace process even if his expectations are that there are some difficulties which make doing so complicated. The answer that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave Secretary of State Kerry is very likely the same answer he has been giving since he returned to the office of Prime Minister, namely that he is ready to restart negotiations and meet with Mahmoud Abbas with no preconditions immediately if Abbas is willing. So, so far it appears that the negotiations are but maybe a photo-op and a press conference away, but are they?
So, what could possibly stand between the parties and resuming the peace talks? There is one other person who is not standing in the way of resumption of the talks, and that is Jordanian King Abdullah II. Unfortunately, though he has no objections, the talks can go or not go completely independent from his desires. That brings us to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He too has expressed a go signal for talks but within his affirmative answer he has couched language which signifies that he also imposes conditional requirements on the restating of the peace process. He never states these preconditions to any other parties other than Israel; he just adds some coded language about the Israelis needing to prove willing to meet their hopes by showing a willingness to meet with them with respect for their position and would treat them with fairness. Then when the time comes, if Palestinian President Abbas remains true to form, he will gladly meet for the press conference and photo-op and sit through the initial session during which much of the program is simply formalities and done as a show of promises to come. Then Abbas will make his move and demand an initial precondition that Israel must meet before he can continue any further with the peace talks. Ever since President Obama placed the demand on Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel implement a building freeze on all areas beyond the 1967 Lines, aka Green Line or 1949 Armistice Lines, President Abbas has made that his opening demand with the added proviso that the freeze be permanent until the talks have been completed. When President Obama made that demand, Prime Minister Netanyahu reluctantly complied by imposing a ten month freeze during which Abbas claimed that Israel was not really committed to the freeze or they would make it permanent. Then, with just under three weeks left in the imposed freeze Abbas met once more for another photo-op and then demanded another freeze before he would sit with Netanyahu. Should it appear that the Israelis might meet any preconditions, Abbas has a whole list which he picks other almost randomly just to keep new excuses, or at least ones which sound fresh, in the mix making it impossible for any talks to be resumed. Some of his other preconditions have included, and this is not a complete list, allow the import by the Palestinians of weapons to upgrade their security forces, removal of all roadblocks and security checkpoints, prisoner releases, peace talks utilize borders from before the 1967 war as the starting point for border negotiations with any changes completely depend upon Palestinian consent allowing no recourse for Israel to implement changes, and if all preconditions fail Abbas will demand the ‘Right of Return’ of at a minimum five million Palestinians into Israeli final borders with complete citizenship with all rights including voting immediately upon their arrival. There is one last action which President Mahmoud Abbas has utilized to place talks on hold, he simply holds reconciliation talks with Hamas and agrees to reunite the two factions and plays along on that front long enough to get past any serious threat of talks being forced upon him.
The reality is that there is a moderate possibility for a press conference complete with photo-op and possibly one meeting without any progress followed by preconditions being demanded by President Abbas placing any further talks in jeopardy. There is always the possibility that the United States could stand behind the Palestinians and fully back their demands on Israel. That would soon produce yet another question; how far would President Obama be willing to go in backing Mahmoud Abbas and his litany of preconditions? Where would President Obama back away? Would he only back the demand for another building freeze? Would he allow for the pre-1967 War lines to be the starting position for border negotiations? Both of these preconditions were first initiated by President Obama so he just might back both of these demands. But would he demand open borders, open military weapons trade rights for the Palestinian Authority, allow entry into treaties with other nations including mutual military training operations within the Palestinian Territories, the release of all, or at a minimum some, of the Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons, the end of the Gaza blockade, or would he pull out all the stops and grant even the wildest of Abbas’s dreams with the full force of the United States. This is only one of the questions which will be answered over the next few months or possibly the rest of the Obama Presidency. Sometimes I fear the questions almost as much as the answers as either one can ruin an otherwise good day.
Beyond the Cusp