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Kerry's Interim Agreement

18 December 2013

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

US Sec. of State John Kerry is wholeheartedly brokering what he hopes will be a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. This being unachievable we can expect he advance an extensive interim accord. There is no choice. The four major issues are security, borders, Jerusalem and refugees. When all is said and done, Israel's bottom line is "End of Conflict" – a commendable but unrealistic goal. However there is room and need for agreement on what is attainable at the moment.

The talks are being held without publicity but a few facts are known. Israeli concerns over security are the first big issue which if addressed, borders can be discussed. Economic development in the Palestinian Authority (or interim State) is of paramount importance. The Fatah/PA government compromised itself by just interacting with Israel over a two-state solution and therefore must compensate their population at least in part through material advancement. Both Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu and former Palestinian Authority PM Salam Fayyad who wrote up the draft for an independent Palestinian State in 2009 believe in an "economic peace" although the political conditions are seen in a very different light. Conflict resolution begins with what is agreed upon and tackles the tougher issues later. In essence we are speaking of Stage II in the Bush Road Map of ten years ago.

To ensure economic development there needs to be security. Everyone fears Hamas and Islamic terrorism in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) or worse, an overthrow of the ruling Fatah apparatus. Should there be a Palestinian civil war this would constitute a direct security threat to Israel, in particular by missile attack on her major cities and international airport. General Keith Dayton's US trained Palestinian police (with help from Israel if needed) are expected to be up to the job. The external security issue, Israel's presence in the Jordan Rift Valley, is just as vital to guarantee Israeli security along the natural geographic Jordan River border. Since 1967 Israel fears an overthrow of the pro-western Hashemite monarchy of Jordan just to the east by radical forces whether they be secular or Islamist. Leaks from the talks point to an Israeli-Palestinian compromise leading to a 15 year Israeli presence on the western side of the Jordan River within the framework of a multi-national force to include Palestinians. After 15 years there is to be a review, examining the future of the security arrangement. Israel consistently makes it clear that her security border is the Jordan River and not the 1949-67 armistice line between Tulkarm and Netanya some 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Mediterranean Sea.

On the political-diplomatic level one can expect an American demand for recognition of the two-state solution by both sides. A declaration as such may be requested at the conclusion of the interim stage negotiations or drawn up and only implemented with the conclusion of a permanent status agreement. Both the Hamas/Islamists and the Israeli right wing/religious factions will find themselves with a fait accompli and in full opposition to any accord. Rumors have it that Kerry may ask for a deliberate statement recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People. The geographical contours of Palestine will be defined essentially as the West Bank and Gaza. The hope is to bring in full international diplomatic and financial support, particularly from Europe. So far they are offering billions of euros in funds provided there be a final accord. The EU needs to readjust its expectations to reality should they want to aid in the peace process. Developmental support in the wake of a wide ranging interim accord will be very helpful. The West will become the PA/Fatah patron in full putting Israel and the PA/Fatah Palestinians in the same category. One can expect billions of dollars and euros in investment for Palestinian development as compensation and incentives for state building alongside Israel.

Next are borders – a very tricky issue. To determine the exact boundaries is to arrive pretty much at a permanent status accord. As of May 2011 and Pres. Obama's declaration that Israel must withdraw to the 1967 lines with "land swaps" the border issue is more defined. Israel speaks of defensible borders and today demographics play a role when discussing Israeli settlement across the armistice lines. Most Israelis living in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) live within a few kilometers of the old lines and lands can be exchanged. For those living deep in Judea and Samaria they will be given to understand that they will not be residing in the State of Israel in the future, even if the interim borders are not finalized. Municipal funding may be cut to a minimum as happened at different times in the 1990s and 2000s when the government sought to send such a message. Certainly Israel will be asked to remove road blocks and security installations in agreed upon regions for Palestinian sovereignty. The Palestinian police will take over security in these areas.

Jerusalem is a formidable stumbling block. A statement concerning the Jerusalem "region" serving as a capital for both Israel and the Palestinians may be on the table. Years ago the Palestinians were planning a parliament building in Abu Dis, a suburb to the east. Supposedly the structure was to be several meters outside the Jerusalem city limits. From the Israeli side it is unacceptable to speak of dividing the "united" capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish People. Today Palestinian Arabs make up close to 40% of Jerusalem's population when in 1967 they formed around 24%. Anyone keeping track of the demographics knows Jerusalem will have an Arab majority within a decade or so. Arab neighborhoods east and north of the city could be brought under Palestinian jurisdiction and Jewish neighborhoods would be retained by Israel in a municipal system of borough's encouraging local initiative in what would become a semi-divided city. Residents would live in Israel or Palestine yet share municipal services and development. Such a solution is being discussed for the past generation. This could be the beginning of partial agreement to move some of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods over to Palestinian control. It is a long shot but could set a precedent for negotiations over Jerusalem. There would need to be reciprocal recognition by the Palestinians that Jewish neighborhoods across the 1967 lines are now part of Israel. The hardest nut to crack involves the Old City, Temple Mt. and holy basin spanning up to the Mt. of Olives. We can expect this to be left for the final accord. Many suggest internationalization, others to draw borders. Whatever happens there will need to be a free flow of people from one side of the city to the other.

Should all the above come true, this would be the most serious movement towards conflict resolution since Oslo II (1995) and prove the whole process is still alive. Even such a partial accord will attract much opposition, certainly from Hamas and Fatah rejectionists, but also from Netanyahu's coalition partners, the Jewish Home faction and the right wing of his own Likud party. Netanyahu might be able to bring in the Labor party to replace the Jewish Home faction and even outvote his own internal opposition but it will be a serious struggle. As for the Palestinians, Hamas and their allies will agitate for serious civil unrest and possibly an overthrow of the PA. Would the PA be able to halt civil conflict without turning it into a civil war? All will have to be nipped in the bud otherwise the Palestinians will join the instability raging in the Arab/Muslim world.

What cannot be achieved – a permanent status agreement.

First, foremost and by far of greatest significance is the fact that no one has ever prepared the Palestinian refugees and their descendents for no return to Israel proper. Israel might agree to a symbolic return of some actual refugees, those born before 1948, as a gesture of good will. Mahmoud Abbas and the PA/Fatah have never had any official policy besides demanding full refugee return. To do otherwise will have them declared "traitors" by Hamas and Fatah rejectionists and lead to an overthrow of the present PA leadership. It is doubtful whether any power could halt such an uprising. The issue is even more complicated as the Palestinian refugees are the only ones in the world where one passes down refugee status unto the furthest generations, serving as a great incentive not to seek any solution where Israel survives as a Jewish State.

On the Israeli side the Jewish Home party junior partners fully oppose a two-state solution and represent the settlement interest more than anyone. It is believed that 75-80 percent of Jews living in the West Bank can be brought into Israel through land swaps. This does not interest the solid religious and right wing factions embodied in the Likud and Jewish Home party. They believe in the Greater Land of Israel and no Palestinian State. For Netanyahu to take them on means the destruction of the coalition, his Likud party and quite possibly the end to his own political career. Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution at this stage would lead to serious civil disorder. For years the Israeli public has been notified that a two-state solution is under negotiation. The message continues to take time to sink in.

Netanyahu promised a referendum in lieu of a peace accord. But what of another interim agreement, even should it be wide ranging? On an interim accord he could hold his coalition together despite losing the right wing of the Jewish Home party. Should the entire faction leave he will need to bring in Labor. Labor and the left opposition will vote for the accord as will most of the Likud/Yisrael Beitainu senior partners. There may be a few abstentions. The centrist Yesh Atid will vote for the accord along with Tzippi Livni's Tnua party. Many in the moderate right will want to test Palestinian intentions and not take unnecessary gambles. They could go with a long term interim accord seen as bringing stability (and putting off a final agreement). With a two-state solution the declared objective the dangers of a bi-national state will recede.

If and when concluded both Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas will face enormous American and EU pressure to ratify the interim framework. It will not be easy but certainly possible.