In an apparent confirmation that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are making little if any progress after three months and 15 sessions, Secretary of State John Kerry is going out next week to try to give them a boost that is expected to include a face-to-face meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinians have been complaining that the only thing Israelis want to talk about is security, and the Israelis say that is the most essential issue and, besides, the Palestinian positions on other topics are unrealistic.
There’s a heavy dose of unrealistic demands on both sides. Palestinians are complaining that Israel announced plans to build 1,500 new homes in East Jerusalem this week at the same time it released the latest group of Palestinian prisoners. The housing announcement was timed to offset the anger from the Israeli right and particularly the settler movement over freeing 26 terrorists convicted of murder, and the Palestinians know that but are still trying to exploit the issue. They are talking about pressing the international community to define Israeli settlement expansion as a war crime.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu gave a speech declaring Israel should retain control over the Jordan valley as its permanent security border, something the Palestinians have repeatedly declared unacceptable. Little wonder most Israelis have low expectations that these talks will succeed.
Kerry is to meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Wednesday and Abbas in Ramallah later that day. With nothing close to a breakthrough in sight, it is little wonder that an Israel Hayom poll of Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israeli adults showed only 7.9% think these negotiations will lead to a peace agreement, while 83.8% said they will not.
Security borders are not the only problem. Another is Jerusalem; the Palestinians want the eastern sector as their capital, and Netanyahu has repeatedly opposed any redivision of the city (although two of his predecessors agreed in earlier talks).
Kerry had set a nine-month target for completion of a final status agreement and the establishment of a Palestinian state, not another interim arrangement, which Netanyahu is said to prefer. However, in recent days there have been reports that Abbas is willing to settle for an interim deal.
Expectations for a successful outcome remain low, and the army is preparing for the possibility of another Intifada breaking out in the West Bank if the talks fail, although IDF officials tell the Jerusalem Post they think chances of that happening are also low despite efforts by Hamas to spark clashes with Israel in the territories. The Post, citing military sources, reported, “The general Palestinian population was showing no signs of getting behind a new wave of violence,”
Kerry is also scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia for some serious fence mending. The Saudis are complaining the Obama administration not doing enough to push Israeli-Palestinian peace and is too tolerant of Israeli settlement construction and what they consider Israeli obstructionism.
On three other key issues, the Israelis and Saudis find themselves on the same side against Washington. They feel Obama is not doing enough to bring down Bashar Assad in Syria, and he is too anxious to compromise with the Iranians on their nuclear ambitions. The Middle East’s new odd couple also considers Obama too demanding on the new Egyptian leaders; they were happy to see Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood removed from power, and replaced with the usual military dictators, and think Obama is being too harsh in embargoing some military assistance.
Kerry may be alone in his optimism on the chances for Arab-Israeli peace. President Obama, who was badly burned by his own inept handling of the issue in his first term, looks like a semi-interested observer this time around.