Peace Process Hanging in the Balance

Secretary of State John Kerry cut short a tour to Europe Monday to rush to Israel and the West Bank to salvage the US-brokered peace process from collapse.

The reason for the current crisis, the most severe since the beginning the so-called Kerry initiative eight months ago, is the Israeli government’s balking at the release of Palestinian security prisoners, convicted terrorists who Israel has committed to releasing as a gesture to the Palestinians.

Last July, when the terms of the current negotiations were agreed upon, the Israeli government rejected a demand to freeze settlement construction for the duration of the negotiations, and instead agreed to release n order to move back to the negotiations table, Israel agreed in July to release 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of crimes committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords. The prisoners were to be released in four tranches of 26 prisoners each. Israel has so far released 78 prisoners in three tranches. In return the Palestinians agreed not to pursue unilateral diplomatic actions in international forums, such as seeking statehood recognition or taking Israel to the International Criminal Court. 

At the heart of the current disagreement is a Palestinian demand that Israel free a group of 14 Israeli-Arab security prisoners. In the past, most Israeli-Palestinian deals in which Palestinian prisoners were released did not include Israeli citizens. Israeli governments have always been keen on deterring its Arab citizens from getting involved in terrorism and have refused to recognize the PLO as representing citizens of the state of Israel.

Once Israel missed Saturday’s deadline for releasing the prisoners, the Palestinian leadership reportedly upped the ante and threatened not to extend the negotiating process beyond April 29, the end of the nine-month period that Secretary Kerry initially allotted to the parties to reach agreement. First, Kerry talked about reaching a comprehensive peace agreement by April 29, then about reaching an outline, and now he is apparently negotiating with President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu the terms of extending negotiations beyond April 29.

According to Israeli media reports, Israel suggested that in exchange for a Palestinian commitment to extend the negotiations for another lengthy period (supposedly, a year), Israel would release several hundred Palestinian prisoners and partially freeze settlement construction in the West Bank but not in East Jerusalem. Israeli news outlets reported that the Palestinians rejected the offer.

Other yet unconfirmed media reports contended that the Obama administration on Monday offered to release Jonathan Pollard, the US citizen who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. Such a move seems unlikely. Official spokespersons for the Obama administration recently denied reports about Washington’s intention to release Pollard as an incentive for Israel not to bring the peace process to an abrupt end.

Israel’s Peace Now movement will demonstrate Tuesday before the Prime Minister’s office calling on Benjamin Netanyahu not to miss this opportunity for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “Secretary Kerry is not giving up – neither should we,” said a Peace Now invitation to the demonstration.

To learn more about the current state of the peace process, see these resources:

  • Lara Friedman’s Haaretz article about the opportunity for reciprocally addressing sensitive Israeli and Palestinians narratives.
  • Ori Nir’s Haaretz article on why Kerry deserves our support
  • Associated Press’ news update,  Reuters’ report on Kerry’s surprise trip to Israel, and AFP’s update on Kerry’s coming to Jerusalem.  
  • Yossi Alpher’s expert analysis of the state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
  • APN's Peace Process Resource Page