Israel And Palestine: Moving The Goalposts – OpEd


July 30, 2013:  “Our objective will be to achieve a final status agreement over the course of the next nine months”  –  John Kerry, US Secretary of State.

December 7, 2013:  “It is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes it’s better to move forward than go backwards.” Barack Obama, US President. 

The aspirational target announced by Kerry back in July, at the start of the current round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, has proved wildly optimistic.  And this in spite of the fact that, in the intervening six months, John Kerry has not spared himself in his prodigious efforts to achieve his objective.  If the Nobel Peace Prize were awarded on the basis of sheer persistence in the pursuit of peace, John Kerry would be the number one candidate this year.  A dozen visits to the Middle East by Kerry, 24 rounds of talks between the principal negotiators – and yet a final status agreement remains way beyond reach.

Is US diplomacy to admit defeat?  Never!  It has found a way to come to terms with the changed circumstances, and emerge smelling of roses.

“Rather than declare failure,” observes political analyst Herb Keinon, “what Kerry and US President Barack Obama have done is to change the name of the game.”  So what is now being sought is “not an agreement, but a basis to allow continued negotiations toward an agreement.”

In short, they shifted the goalposts – and in so doing, they redefined the criteria by which “success” is to be judged.  The desired outcome is now no longer a “final status agreement”, but what has been dubbed a “framework agreement”, defined as a critical first step towards a comprehensive Middle East peace accord. Kerry is currently heavily engaged in trying to win the concurrence of the two negotiating teams to a document encapsulating this framework.  The statement will seek to achieve enough of a convergence on core issues to allow the two sides to proceed later, in a so-far unspecified time frame extending well beyond the original nine months, towards a formal peace agreement whose final outcome is to be a sovereign Palestinian state.

Informed sources indicate that the so-called “framework agreement” – which, rumour has it, is to be issued within the next few weeks – will be a short document, perhaps fewer than a dozen pages and without detailed annexes. It would not be signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and would most likely take note of reservations that the two sides have about some elements.

The mere prospect of this framework accord – to say nothing of a final status agreement, if or when it finally appears – is beginning to produce political ructions in both Jerusalem and Ramallah.  Rejectionist voices in both camps are already loud in their condemnation of feared – though by no means confirmed – concessions being made by their leaders.  On January 4 the leading Palestinian negotiator, SaebErekat, told local media:  “There’s no place to talk about interim agreements or extension of the negotiations, and that’s also what I told Kerry.”  A few days later Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, created an international furore by castigating Kerry’s efforts as an “incomprehensible obsession,” and “messianic”.  Kerry’s spokesmen in Washington may have roundly condemned the comments, but Kerry himself, “undeterred” as he puts it,  sails serenely on.  “I will work with the willing participants who are committed to peace and committed to this process.”

The substance of the negotiations undertaken during those twenty-four, no doubt wearisome, sessions has not been revealed.  The blanket of secrecy imposed by Kerry at the very start of the process has, by and large, been successfully maintained. A few self-styled “informed” leaks there have been, but how valid they are is anyone’s guess.  Kerry insisted – and with some justification – that it was vital for the parties to be able to negotiate freely, and without the political and media pressure that would undoubtedly have built up if regular progress reports had been issued.

But there is an obverse to that particular coin.  The absence of hard information provides a breeding ground in both camps for rumour, and for fear of where the talks are headed and what vital matters are being conceded.  Even worse, with no indication of whether the negotiations are indeed leading the parties towards agreement, neither Israeli nor Palestinian public opinion is being prepared for a successful outcome.  This is particularly obvious on the Palestinian side, where traditional anti-Israel, “anti-normalization”, demonstrations continue unabated. and where Kerry was met by hostile and vociferous protesters on his latest visit to Ramallah.  Inside Israel, the free media do give voice to the wide range of political opinion – but even so, there seems only cynicism about the likely result of the current talks, and no groundswell of support for a successful outcome.

In short, while more extreme voices on both sides continue to express profound lack of confidence in the negotiations and in those undertaking them, any sort of countervailing body of opinion pushing for a successful outcome, organizing pro-agreement demonstrations, urging the leaders to reach an accord, preparing the public for peace, has so far been notably absent in both the Palestinian territories and Israel, although – a hopeful sign?- one such demonstration actually took place in Israel on January 17. Nevertheless it is pretty clear that neither side is yet ready to embrace the concept of peaceful co-existence, and that, following the framework agreement, substantive discussions are likely to extend well beyond April 2014 into an indefinite future, with no assurance of a successful outcome.

The situation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. A horrid suspicion persists that, at the end of the day, the mountain will have laboured mightily and brought forth a mouse.  If current reports are to be believed, the framework agreement will have been signed by neither of the prime movers – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or PA President Abbas.  It will be, reports suggest, an American statement, setting out what the peace discussions have so far achieved, but also apparently detailing areas of remaining disagreement.  A statement, in short, of the obvious.  The reaction on all sides might well be: “Tell us something we don’t know.”  If this is to be claimed by Washington as success, and a result commensurate with John Kerry’s intensive efforts to bring the parties to an agreement, then the shifting of the original goalposts will scarcely have been justified.

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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