It is not clear why US Secretary of State John Kerry chose to visit Ramallah and meet with Palestinian leaders before meeting with the Israelis. Is it a gesture to the Palestinians, or does he think he needs to get more out of them this round than from the Israelis? Is it just a scheduling issue related to Jewish holidays?
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: There is a lot more happening behind the scenes than in public. Observers of previous talks have always said that secrecy is one of the most important conditions for any successful progress in the Middle East.
What is known from the Abbas-Kerry meeting, however, is very important.
Palestinians are demanding a clear and detailed map of where the western borders of Palestine will be. The significance of this is obvious. With Palestinians failing to reverse or even freeze settlement activities in occupied Palestine, the demarcation of borders will solve this issue. It is inconceivable, once the borders are declared, to tolerate any activities by the Israelis on the Palestinian side.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ demand is not new. The late Yasser Arafat often asked for a map, while the Israelis consistently refused to show their hand on this important issue, and have repeatedly dodged the question by raising all kinds of tangential issues that deviate from the basic requirement of a two-state solution. Knowing the exact borders of these two adjacent states seems elementary if the intentions for peace are honest.
Kerry’s visit to Palestine also comes while the area is boiling.
Palestinians have been demonstrating angrily for days following the death of 64-year-old Maysara Abu Hamdieh, who died in an Israeli prison suffering from throat cancer that went untreated. The case highlighted one of Palestine’s leading areas of daily conflict with their occupiers: the status of some 4,500 prisoners. One set of prisoners, those held before the Oslo Accords and for whom previous promises of fair treatment have gone undelivered, is at the top on the list of Abbas' demands, as are hunger-striking prisoners who are held without charge or trial, such as Samer Issawi.
The prisoner issue falls under the clause confidence-building measures, and the Israelis are holding out in this important area in order to extract concessions from the Palestinians.
Israelis want the Palestinians to drop the settlement-freeze precondition to face-to-face talks, as well as to refrain from going to the International Criminal Court or other moves that would invoke the UN General Assembly’s decision to recognize Palestine.
What appears to be happening now is that the Palestinian Authority is willing to refrain for a short period (somewhere between two and three months) from going to the ICC and other UN organizations in order to give the peace talks a chance. And on the settlement freeze issue, Palestinian leaders seem to be willing to reach an undeclared understanding by which the Israelis refrain from making any settlement announcements during the same period.
To boost the chances of success, external regional players will most surely be brought in to help. Already the US has requested the help of Jordan, one of two Arab countries that has a peace agreement with Israel, the other being Egypt, which is deeply engulfed in internal issues. Kerry’s visit to Ramallah comes after a stop in Istanbul. The Americans are hoping to revive Israeli-Turkish relations for their own interests, but Washington would also be delighted to involve its NATO ally of Turkey, a moderate Muslim country, in any Palestinian-Israeli talks.
Talks, even for a short few months, however, must have a clear and agreed-upon purpose. One of the biggest issues that worries the Palestinians is what happens at the end of the period. In the past, the Israelis have been able to blame almost every failed peace initiative on the Palestinian side. The most prominent of those was the Arafat-Barak-Clinton talks at Camp David, in which the US president promised that if talks failed there would be no finger pointing, only to blame the Palestinians afterward for “rejecting Israeli’s generous offer.”
John Kerry, approaching 70, and Mahmoud Abbas, already past his 74th birthday, are very mature when it comes to the politics of negotiations. The one issue that they will need to find out is whether the Israeli leadership under Benjamin Netanyahu is genuinely interested in the progress of the talks, or just seeking to give the appearance of negotiations without any substance. The world will know the answer to this question in a couple of months.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. He tweets from @daoudkuttab.
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