Israel on Sunday announced they welcomed the call to resume peace talks put forth by the Mideast Quartet and again called for negotiations with the Palestinians to resume without preconditions. The Quartet—comprised of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia—had proposed that discussions between Israel and the Palestinians resume within a month and that a timeframe for reaching a peace deal be no longer than the end of 2012.
An Israeli press statement released on Sunday said that Israel “welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions.” The statement also noted regarding the Quartet statement that “while Israel has some concerns, it will raise them at the appropriate time. Israel calls on the Palestinian Authority to do the same and to enter into direct negotiations without delay.”
An Israeli government official, speaking with The Mideast Update by phone, said they will raise their concerns “as this process moves forward, but we want this process to move forward.” The official said Israel has in the past said that once negotiations actually begin they can set one-year as “a target date” for reaching a deal.
Palestinians Push Preconditions
So far the Palestinians have refused to move forward until Israel meets their preconditions. The WAFA Palestinian news agency reported on Sunday that Palestinian Presidency Spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdainah reiterated the Palestinian preconditions to talks with Israel: that the Israelis first commit to halting settlement activities and to “recognize” the 1967 lines.
The 1967 lines were armistice lines between Israel and several Arab states, including Jordan and Egypt. In this context, they would grant the Palestinians the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, although land swaps are also generally expected.
Regarding the other precondition of a halt to settlement building, Israel had previously agreed to an unprecedented 10-month partial settlement construction freeze in 2009-10. However, the Palestinians waited until the freeze was nearing its end to upgrade negotiations with Israel to direct peace talks. The Palestinians then suspended talks after the freeze concluded.
The US presented the Palestinian position more positively in a statement following Israel’s announcement on Sunday. According to a press release from the State Department, spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, “We welcome the Israeli government’s announcement today expressing readiness to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, as called for by the Quartet. The Palestinians expressed support for the Quartet approach on September 29.”
The Americans also called “on both parties to resume negotiations without preconditions, on the timetable proposed by the Quartet, as the best means to advance their interests, resolve their differences, and fulfill the President’s [Barack Obama’s] two-state vision.”
The comments follow additional US diplomacy with the Palestinians last week, although it’s impact remains unclear. On Friday, Nuland told reporters that a US official was set for a meeting that evening with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
According to a transcript of her comments released by the US State Department, Nuland said the official’s meeting was because they were “interested in hearing more how President Abbas is evaluating the [Quartet] proposal and to make sure that he has the benefit of our full explanation about how it came about.”
The Palestinian demand for certain preconditions may not preclude a return to direct discussions with the Israelis, as the Quartet called for a “preparatory meeting” within one month “to agree an agenda and method of proceeding in the negotiation.”
As for Israel, the Israeli government official told The Mideast Update that they were “willing to show flexibility” within the context of negotiations, without going into detail.
The official characterized the Quartet position as saying that both parties “can have positions, and those positions should be brought to the negotiating table. Those positions should not be preconditions that prevent negotiations from happening.” The US has noted Israel’s flexibility in discussions as well.
One of the Quartet’s calls was for the sides to make “substantial progress” on security and borders within six months. The Israeli official did not outright oppose a six-month timeline for getting together firm proposals on those matters, but was clearly opposed to dividing up the negotiations on the so-called “core issues”—which include refugees, water, and Jerusalem, as well as borders and security.
“We think you can’t take some of the core issues and discuss them in isolation, because ultimately there has to be tradeoffs between the core issues… the core issues interrelate,” said the official.
He later noted that “I don’t see Israel agreeing to finalize a border without having assurances on the other core issues as well,” such as the refugee issue. As an example, he said Israel couldn’t agree to borders and then accept that they would be “swamped with the descendants of Palestinian refugees.”
He said the Palestinian perspective is “let’s do borders first, because that’s the issue where Israel has to show flexibility. The idea that Israel show flexibility in a vacuum is just bad negotiating strategy. Israel will show flexibility when the Palestinians show flexibility…. The core issues have to be put together on the table.”
The UN Surprise
The Quartet plan was released the same day Abbas made the Palestinian UN membership bid, which is currently in a committee in the UN Security Council. Once the committee finishes considering the bid and makes a recommendation to the Security Council, then a vote will take place by the Council as a whole.
At that point the Palestinian application needs nine of the 15 Council members to vote yes in order to get approval and go to the UN General Assembly for a final vote. The US has said they will veto the measure if necessary, but the Palestinians must get the nine yes votes to force the veto and grant them potential political momentum in their diplomatic battle against Israel.
The Israeli official noted that “at this point it is not clear” that the Palestinians have the nine yes votes. While the Palestinians have not been hiding that fact, the Israeli official told The Mideast Update such a scenario at the UN was unexpected for the Palestinians, as was the Quartet move.
“It appears the Palestinians are finding themselves to be, in the many ways, uncharacteristically isolated… it’s not clear they’ve got those votes [in the Security Council] and therefore it’s not clear the United States will have to veto, I think that was a big surprise to the Palestinians,” said the official.
“They were surprised, I think, by the Quartet’s statement and its call for resumption of talks without any preconditions… For the Palestinians not to have the votes at the UN is actually something very unusual for them.”
The Israeli official felt the situation shows the international community is not “automatically endorsing” the Palestinian position, but rather “they seem to be endorsing what we’re saying, which is it’s time to return to negotiations without preconditions.”
The official said that the American and Israeli diplomatic efforts has been effective. According to the official, Israeli diplomacy to convince the Security Council members to oppose the Palestinian UN bid was still ongoing.
(By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com, October 3, 2011)