Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat down together for the first time in 3 years on Monday at an Iftar dinner at the State Department in Washington, DC, marking the beginning of a months-long process aimed at achieving a final peace agreement ending the decades-old conflict between the two sides.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the resumption of peace talks after months of working behind the scenes in what many analysts say is perhaps the final opportunity to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict. As the process is just getting underway, we take a look at how we got here and what to look for going forward:
Urgency. “I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting,” Kerry told a House panel back in April. “I think we have some period of time a year, a year and a half, to two years or its over.” Other current and former top Israeli officials have offered similar warnings in recent weeks. Why? The rapid expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank is increasingly making the creation of a Palestinian state on that land more difficult. And as Yuval Diksin, the former head of Israel’s domestic security service, warned, the alternatives to two-states could either mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state or the end of Israel as a democratic one.
Kerry’s Role. Since becoming the nation’s top diplomat earlier this year, John Kerry made a resolution to the conflict a centerpiece of his tenure and worked tirelessly trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, a process that was reportedly years in the making. According to the Daily Beast, between 2009 and 2012, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry “used his access to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas to test privately what concessions the leaders would be willing to make once he secured his dream job at the State Department.” In addition to Kerry’s efforts, many analysts think the European Union’s recent decision to withhold funding and cooperation with Israeli organizations that operate in the occupied territories may have motivated the Israelis to get serious about peace talks.
Initial Concessions. After President Obama’s visit to Israel in which he urged Israelis to lead a grassroots movement for peace, Kerry went to work. Reports later surfaced that Kerry would revive the Arab League Peace Initiative — of which former President Clinton once called a “heck of a deal” for the Israelis — as the basis for negotiations. After the Arab League said it would ease some of the Initiative’s demands, favorable to the Israelis, Israel quietly agreed to a partial settlement freeze and said publicly this week that it would release 104 Palestinian prisoners. In return, the Palestinians, after receiving economic incentives, would promise to not seek any international recognition of their independence akin to their U.N. bid last year.
The Key Players. Tzipi Livni is the Israelis’ lead negotiator with the Palestinians and she will be accompanied by Netanyahu’s special envoy Isaac Molho. “On the Palestinian side,” the New York Times reports, “will be Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.” Kerry announced that former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk as his primary representative in the talks. Frank Lowenstein, who was instrumental in Kerry’s behind the scenes diplomacy with the Israelis and Palestinians in the last few years, will be Indyk’s deputy.
The Key Issues. As the AP notes, “The contours of Israeli-Palestinian peace are clear, experts say: If only the sides summon up the will, the inevitable outcome is two states roughly along the pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital and a finessing of the Palestinian refugee issue.” The two sides must also agree to so-called “land swaps,” as its widely understood that some of the larger Jewish settlement blocs established in the occupied West Bank after the 1967 war will remain part of Israel. The Israelis have also demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State, which could complicate the right of return for Palestinian refugees, which number around 700,000. Other issues include prisoners, the demilitarization of the West Bank, what to do with Gaza, which is currently being run by the terrorist group Hamas. While the two-state solution is the ultimate goal, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that “[o]ne argument that Mr. Kerry and his team have been careful not to make publicly, but that Arab, Israeli and American officials have begun to speculate about, is that something less than a comprehensive settlement might be achievable.”
Potential Roadblocks. Many Israeli officials do not support peace talks with the Palestinians, or a two-state solution to the conflict, including many in Netanyahu’s own party. Israel’s deputy defense minister has even said that the Israeli government will block any two-state deal. Netanyahu has said he wants a referendum on any potential agreement, which, according to recent polling, quite possibly would pass. At the same time, there is skepticism that the Palestinian leadership has public credibility and support, perhaps leaving the legitimacy to any potential deal in question. Another issue is Hamas’s relationship with Fatah, the political party ruling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and what effect that will have on any agreement or lack thereof.
After years of disappointment, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans, both on the right and left, are skeptical that this new round of talks will yield any concrete results. Addressing the skeptics, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami recently wrote in the New York Times, “What we need from those who recognize the importance of the secretary’s work is not a recounting of the reasons why this may not work, but their help in building what he has called the ‘great constituency for peace’ and in pressing the leaders on all sides to make it a success.”