The resumption of peace talks was finally announced on Friday, though it came enveloped in a fog of diplomatic ambiguity, conflicting claims, secret agreements and last-minute hesitations.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Israel was prepared to release some Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands,” but would not accept Palestinian demands over the borders of their future state before talks begin.
“There will be some release of prisoners,” Steinitz told Israel Radio. “I don’t want to give numbers, but there will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years.” The release would be carried out in phases, he added.
“There is no chance that we will agree to enter any negotiations that begin with defining territorial borders or concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze,” he said.
A senior Palestinian official with knowledge of the talks told Reuters, “Our position remains clear. Resumption of negotiations should be based on the two-state solution and on the 1967 borders.”
An additional element of uncertainty emerged on Sunday evening when Palestinian officials indicated it was not a done deal.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the PLO, declared that the Palestinian leadership was not yet committed and that the decision was “conditioned on many clarifications about core issues,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
Whatever framework for negotiations exists, it is a behind-closed-doors matter, with nothing in writing about what the two sides have agreed to ahead of the direct talks, nor any specific date for them to begin.
Hamodia senior correspondent A. Pe’er commented that the reason for all the secrecy is that Kerry failed to bridge the gap between the two sides on any of the core issues. In other words, they are pledged to keep silent on details because there are no details.
Likewise, the announcement of renewed talks was written in such a way as to allow each side to interpret it to its advantage. Thus, the Palestinians can claim that negotiations will proceed on the basis of the 1967 ceasefire lines and that they will receive all 123 terrorists, including convicted murderers, imprisoned before the Oslo Accords.
The Palestinians are also insisting that they received a pledge from Kerry that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised he would freeze building in Yehudah and Shomron and Yerushalayim. Israel continues to refuse such preconditions, at least in public.
The American announcement of renewed talks came immediately after a blatant desecration of Shabbos, an extended phone conversation between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry which concluded with the latter’s agreement to meet with the Palestinians in the near future.
Rarely has an ostensibly hopeful step toward peace in the Middle East been so paved with overt pessimism. As one senior Israeli official told Hamodia on Motzoei Shabbos, “We have been there dozens of times, and nothing has come of it. The gaps between the sides are gigantic.”
Netanyahu’s partner in the ruling Likud-Beitenu party, Avigdor Lieberman, continued to be dismissive of any near-term prospects for peace.
“It’s important to negotiate, and even more important for negotiations to be predicated on realism and not illusions,” Lieberman said in a statement. “There is no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not in the coming years, and what’s possible and important to do is conflict management.”
Transport Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) raised the question that is virtually taboo in diplomatic circles: Whom does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas actually represent?
“Abbas rules over Palestinians less than Assad rules in Syria,” Katz told reporters, referring to the fact that Hamas actually runs Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians are located.
“Just as no one would consider ceding any territory to Assad in the current situation, so certainly no one is thinking seriously of ceding territory to Abbas at time when he doesn’t completely rule over most of the Palestinian population.”
This diplomatic vagueness serves Netanyahu’s political interest in that it has not precipitated a coalition crisis, just loud grumbling.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home chairman, threatened last week to quit the government if it gives in to the 1967 lines as a precondtion for negotiations. But he sounded less combative on Sunday, warily resigned to a round of talks.
“With the start of negotiations, we will insist on continuing normal life and building in Yerushalayim and Yehudah and Shomron… We embark on this journey with caution and with our eyes open. Naive we are not.”
Israeli political commentators noted that Jewish Home had complained for months about a de facto slowdown in construction ordered by Netanyahu, but stayed in the government.
“The negotiations will not be easy,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday, “but we are entering them with integrity and frankness in the hope that this process will be handled responsibly, in a serious and purposeful manner.”
He repeated past pledges to put any accord to a national referendum.
Netanyahu was even able to enjoy some rare praise from the center-left opposition, suggesting they stood ready to replace any nationalist allies he might lose in the quest for peace.
“We are following these moves with amity and support,” Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich told Israel Radio.
“If, during this year, there will be a point when we are on the eve of an accord … and we see the partners from the extreme right leaving Netanyahu’s coalition, then certainly we will reconsider entering the government. It is not because of us that peace will be lost,” she said.
Meanwhile on Sunday, it was reported that former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk will represent the U.S. in the negotiations.
Israel and the PA have informed the U.S. that they accept Indyk’s appointment to the position.