Kerry's consequences, is Abbas making concessions? and more: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: February 3, 2014

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This week, Alpher discusses the flood of policy statements from the most senior spokespersons on every side; whether Abbas is making concessions; Kerry's remarks about the consequences for Israel of not reaching an agreement; Indyk's statement in a phone briefing to American Jewish leaders that the upcoming framework agreement would address the right of Jews who fled Arab countries; and the issue of public attitudes toward the peace process in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and whether they are changing.

Q. We seem to be inundated with more and more policy statements about the Palestinian issue from the most senior spokespersons on all sides. Can you make sense of the last few days' crop of pronouncements?

 A. Indeed, we have heard lately from US Secretary of State John Kerry and his representative to the peace talks Martin Indyk, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his senior ministers, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Q. Perhaps you'll start with Abbas. There seem to be concessions in his remarks to the New York Times.

A. Abbas stated he had proposed to Kerry that an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem. He also allowed that Israeli soldiers could remain in the West Bank for up to five years--not three, as previously stated--while settlements are phased out of the new Palestinian state along a similar timetable. Palestine would have only a police force. According to remarks cited by Yediot Aharonot commentator Nahum Barnea, apparently from the same interview, Abbas also acknowledged that no Palestinian refugees would return to Israel, explaining that he would need Israel's "swapped" territories to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees.

All these remarks represent Palestinian concessions, particularly regarding security issues. Still, it is clear that Abbas does not by any means acquiesce in Israel's demand that Israeli forces remain in the Jordan Valley on Palestinian territory.

Q. And Kerry's remarks about the consequences for Israel of not reaching an agreement: were they an expression of concern by a genuine friend of Israel, as the US contends, or a threat, as Israel argues?

A. Last month, Kerry, along with senior European spokespersons, warned that without an agreement, Israel would not be able to preserve its future as a democratic, majority-Jewish state and would endanger its prosperity, while the Palestinians would also suffer economically and would inadvertently embolden hardliners. On Saturday, at a security conference in Germany, he sent Israel a tougher message: "there's an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. . . . Today's status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It's not sustainable. It's illusionary."

Senior Israelis from the prime minister on down argue that Kerry, in coordination with the European Union, has embarked on a campaign to intimidate the Israeli public with threats of economic boycott and political isolation unless the Netanyahu government makes more concessions toward facilitating the anticipated US framework agreement. Kerry's warnings are seemingly friendly, while the Europeans, in coordination with him, speak more threateningly and back up their remarks with "creeping" steps (by research foundations, pension funds and the like) of economic boycott of Israeli institutions that have a presence in the West Bank.

Indeed, it's hard to take at face value the State Department's reassurance that at the Munich conference Kerry merely spoke “forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life” and simply described “some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails". It seems pretty clear that Kerry's highly energetic and cohesive effort to produce a document that brings the parties closer together and incentivizes further negotiations embraces both "sticks," or penalties for non-compliance, and "carrots"--in the form of offers of EU associate status for Israel and extensive economic investment for Palestine. It would be naive to believe otherwise.

Q. But does this assessment justify the harsh remarks by senior Israelis?

A. Absolutely not. Statements like "The things . . . Kerry said are hurtful, they are unfair and they are intolerable. . . . Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head"--made after a Cabinet meeting, obviously with Netanyahu's approval, by Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu intimate--reflect a seeming willful refusal to accept Kerry for what he obviously is, an American with "a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel’s security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts” (State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki).

More obviously, perhaps, nasty attacks on Kerry by the Netanyahu government reflect panic. Netanyahu really is afraid that Israel will be blamed and punished politically and economically for a failed peace process--meaning that the Israeli public will blame him at the political level. Yet he and his closest political associates remain hell bent on swallowing up the West Bank and East Jerusalem with settlements and discrediting Israel's only peace partner, Abbas. They are increasingly aware that they can't have it both ways much longer--territories and a peace process. Hence their panic. Yet alienating Kerry with unfair criticism is about the stupidest thing they can do if they intend somehow to continue dancing at both parties--peace process and settlements--while maintaining overall American support.

Q. How do you relate to Indyk's statement in a phone briefing to American Jewish leaders that the upcoming framework agreement would address the right of Jews who fled Arab countries after the establishment of Israel to receive compensation?

This appears to be one of Kerry's "carrots" for Israel. Certainly it constitutes an incentive for the Israeli public to support the framework agreement. After all, the public comprises a sizable sector of Jews (and their descendants) who fled Arab countries. With the government's backing, they have long lobbied for reparations on a parallel with compensation for property abandoned in 1948 by fleeing Palestinians--the latter, a measure that is generally understood to be a sine qua non of any successful resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue.

Yet it's hard to understand just how a proviso for dual compensation will fit into an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement. Abbas will argue convincingly that the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries is not a Palestinian problem, but a broader Arab problem. It could perhaps constitute an amendment to the Arab peace initiative or a separate Arab League resolution that welcomes the framework agreement.

Moreover, even if Kerry achieves such a resolution, it is difficult to imagine Arab countries in today's Middle East actually undertaking to provide financial compensation. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Libya--the principal candidates--are all in the throes of internal chaos. The wealthy Saudis and Gulf emirates never expelled or mistreated Jews because none lived there. Egypt's agreements with Israel include a provision for former Egyptian Jews to take their claims to Egyptian courts. Yet the few who did have never gotten very far.

On the other hand, Israel is hardly wealthy enough to contemplate compensating hundreds of thousands of Palestinian property claims from its coffers. That means compensation for all will be based on an internationally-financed fund to which Israeli, Saudis, Japan, China, Korea and the wealthy West contribute. That's what was understood back in July 2000, when the issue was discussed in detail between Israel and the Clinton administration on the sidelines of the abortive Camp David II peace conference.

Q. Finally, can you address the issue of public attitudes toward the peace process in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority? In view of all the peace process activity, are attitudes changing?

A. Public attitudes on both sides were discussed in detail at the recent annual conference of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. The Israeli public, which is polled annually on this topic by INSS, remains amazingly stable in its majority support for a two-state solution. Some 75 percent would support an agreement endorsed by both Abbas and Netanyahu, even though most Israelis are not optimistic about the chances for the success of the current process.

On the Palestinian side, also polled regularly by the highly respected Ramallah-based Khalil Shikaki, a similar 75 percent are on record supporting the "concepts and values" of a two-state solution. Note, however, that two-state concepts held by Israelis and Palestinians are not necessarily identical.

Shikaki also asked West Bank and Gazan Palestinians how optimistic they are regarding a solution. Here it emerges that some 70 to 80 percent are worried about a "negative threat perception" (meaning Israeli actions detrimental to peace) and about the failures of Palestinian state-building. Interestingly, if the process fails, there is currently no majority among Palestinians for either an interim solution or a return to violence in the form of a third intifada. Rather, when confronted with the contingency of failure, two-thirds of Palestinians favor both "non-violent" resistance (which in Palestinian parlance includes acts like stone-throwing) and a return to the option of garnering international recognition for a state and recruiting international economic and political pressure on Israel.

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