Pressures and Positioning on Israel-Palestinian Negotiations

Pressures and Positioning on Israel-Palestinian Negotiations

As the days get hotter in Washington in July, so does the positioning of the parties intensify as they prepare for the next moves in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at reaching an agreement for a comprehensive peace. Here is a scorecard on recent developments:

Many observers said little took place during the meeting this week between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. It seemed more like an exercise to reassure their respective political constituencies that all was well in U.S.-Israeli relations. 

Some had expected the President to seek an agreement from the Prime Minister to extend the freeze on new Israeli construction in the West Bank that is set to expire September 26.  This did not happen.  Instead Obama talked about moving from indirect to direct talks well before the September deadline, suggesting that in some unspecified way this would make moot the issue of extending the construction freeze. 

Everyone knows that any public lifting of the freeze on new construction in September would have an enormous political impact.  Resumption of unrestricted new Israeli construction in the Palestinian territories is probably a political deal breaker that would lead Palestinians to suspend talks altogether. It would continue the loss and division of Palestinian territory and restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem that Palestinians and Arab states could not accept.

So what is going on?   Feeling vulnerable, Palestinians seem to want clear proposals on borders and security or guarantees that the construction freeze will continue in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem before they move from indirect to direct negotiations.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, must deal with conservative members in his party and his coalition who remain attached to the idea of Judah and Samaria — the Palestinian West Bank — eventually becoming part of Israel or at least remaining under direct Israeli control for security reasons.

In his attempt to square this circle, the Prime Minister since March has said on the one hand there is no construction freeze in east Jerusalem, yet he seems to have made sure that municipal groups and zoning boards do not approve or actually start to carry out new construction or eviction projects. There have been hints of some bold proposal in the next few weeks, perhaps on borders, that would lead to direct talks and take the focus off settlement construction.

The United States remains very much in this picture, pressuring and cajoling, using a variety of political carrots and sticks to keep the parties on course in the negotiations.  When officials spoke of carrying out an order evicting Palestinians from housing in east Jerusalem, and Palestinians named a square in a West Bank town for a terrorist, the White House issued a stern warning saying that both sides should avoid actions or provocations that would damage the climate for negotiations.  The U.S. seems to be seeking ways to encourage Palestinians to agree to direct negotiations.  Israel agreed at U.S. behest to ease the blockade of Gaza, and the U.S. recently discussed more security enhancements and agreed not to press Israel publicly over its nuclear program.

As the summer proceeds, opportunities for political missteps or provocation will remain.  Considerable effort will be needed to overcome the inertia of the status quo.  But the pressures from expectations of progress are already too high for the process to stop now.  Looking forward, the need to find a way to get around the settlement construction issue and move to direct talks by September will be a major hurdle. Once that is past, and once the U.S. mid-term elections have taken place in early November, there will be time for a new evaluation.