Six months before an unofficial deadline for a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the Obama administration is feeling pressure to show progress in U.S.-sponsored peace talks that both sides say have not made much headway.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry will visit Jerusalem and the West Bank next week to prod both sides, which have been holding direct meetings among negotiators for three months. The trip offers the chance to push the talks along — and raise the stakes for all sides — by convening the first direct meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Despite a pledge to keep details of the talks out of the news media, grumbling from both sides has recently gotten louder and more public. Palestinian officials charge that Israel has refused to consider most agenda items that do not relate directly to Israel’s security. Israeli officials complain that Palestinian demands are unrealistic.
A senior Israeli official said there’s been no real breakthrough in the negotiations. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe some aspects of the discussions.
“The current Israeli negotiating position is the worst in more than 20 years,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Palestinian official, adding that the talks have yielded “no tangible progress.”
“They want security first, and that the borders of the state of Palestine should be set out according to Israeli security needs that never end and that will undermine the possibility of establishing a sovereign Palestinian state,” Rabbo said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently signaled willingness to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has previously said he is open to it. The session is politically much more risky for Abbas because of widespread skepticism among Palestinians that talks are worthwhile.
The two leaders could meet on their own, but Kerry’s presence would make clear that the United States is holding both sides to a tight timeline he set in the summer — nine months of talks to make a deal to establish an independent Palestinian state by late spring 2014.
That means resolving all the major issues and disagreements, including borders, the rights of Palestinians and their descendants who left land in what is now Israel, the fate of Jerusalem and ways to ensure Israel’s security when it no longer occupies the West Bank.
“The parties have committed to meet in private and keep the substance of the talks confidential,” White House Mideast policy chief Philip Gordon told a Palestinian-American audience in Washington this week. “But I will say this: The core issues — borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees — are all on the table and part of a serious discussion.”
Direct talks between the top leaders are considered by both sides to be the only way a deal could come together. Kerry structured talks so that the leaders could remain offstage for a time, but complaints about a lack of progress may be a sign that top-level talks and a stronger American hand are needed, analysts said.
“Even if we took these reports and leaks with a grain of salt, their growing pace and increasingly despondent tone, especially on the Palestinian side, should suggest that something is desperately off,” Israeli security analyst Yonatan Touval said. “With such screeching sounds, there’s a danger the negotiations’ wheels may grind to a halt even before the nine-month deadline.”
Getting both sides to the table after a hiatus lasting most of the past five years took months of wrangling by Kerry, who has made the effort his signature undertaking.
The idea of a tight deadline, U.S. officials say, is to force the sides to jump directly into the most difficult issues and prevent stalling and hedging. Kerry insisted last month that he wants a full, final deal, not an interim agreement or similar half-measure. The United States is expected to offer its own proposals to bridge some of the largest divides.
Signaling any willingness to settle for less than a full deal would, of course, be a poor negotiating tactic for Kerry at this stage. But several people familiar with aspects of the talks suggested that a partial agreement, and a continuation of talks, is a likely outcome.
“If you look at the core issues, it’s hard to see how all these matters,” including refugees and borders, “will be agreed upon” in the time allotted, said longtime Israeli diplomat Zalman Shoval, a special envoy for Netanyahu.
Shoval did not dispute that the early work of the talks has focused on Israel’s security needs.
“Security for us is the alpha and omega,” he said. “If we can satisfy our security concerns, the rest will be easier to resolve.”
Kerry and his team have suggested that “land swaps” could be at the heart of any final agreements about borders. Previously, Israeli negotiators have proposed annexing portions of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that hold the largest settlement blocs.
Netanyahu has honored his promise to release Palestinian prisoners, a precondition urged on him by Kerry to get Abbas to return to negotiations.
The first 52 of 104 prisoners have been released on schedule. Freeing prisoners is an unpopular gesture in Israel — all of them were convicted of murdering Israelis — no matter that the inmates have served long terms.
Abbas has pointed to the prisoner release to show Palestinians have at least gotten something for sitting down with the Israelis.
On Wednesday, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, charged that Israel’s announcement that it would add new housing units to Jewish settlements around Jerusalem and in the West Bank “has proven once again that it is not a partner for peace.”
The housing announcement was widely seen as a political counterweight to the prisoner release.