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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher -Behind and beyond the Kerry visit. : April 8, 2013


Behind and beyond the Kerry visit.

Alpher discusses all the difficult pieces that US Secretary of State John Kerry must juggle in his third visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah in two weeks in trying to restart the peace process: what he's seeking from each side, where Turkey fits in, what Egypt is doing about Hamas and how might this factor into Kerry's efforts, where Jordan fits in, and what is the bottom line.

Q. US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel on Sunday for his third visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah in two weeks. In trying to restart the peace process, he seems to be juggling a lot of balls.

A. Indeed, Kerry arrived from Turkey, where as part and parcel of Turkish-Israeli reconciliation he talked to the Turks about playing a peace process role designed to bring Hamas into the process. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem and Ramallah he has been discussing confidence-building gestures. Then there are Egyptian and Jordanian angles to consider: Egypt prefers to monopolize relations with Hamas; Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas just signed an agreement concerning Jerusalem.

One has to assume that at some point, Kerry will either narrow down his focus to a more compact set of actors, or will seek to expand it into some sort of regional convocation designed to launch a renewed process. For the moment, all we can do is sort out the various intersecting dynamics.

Q. Let's start with the obvious: Jerusalem and Ramallah.

A. Kerry is reportedly seeking a set of gestures from each side to set the scene for renewed talks of some kind. Thus far, Abbas has committed to delay for two or three months any further Palestinian appeals--based on the provisional statehood status the United Nations has conferred--to bodies like the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for his part, has reinstated routine transfers of VAT and excise taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Abbas, who does not want to be drawn into negotiations over boundary proposals any less far-reaching than those offered by then-PM Ehud Olmert in 2009 (and that Abbas turned down), apparently now insists that Netanyahu first present his proposed map of final status. Netanyahu--whose ideas about borders and Jerusalem are far less constructive than Olmert's and whose government is committed to settlement expansion--reportedly refuses. He insists that this is an issue to be negotiated and that he rejects preconditions, particularly when they involve Israel making concessions regarding land in the West Bank without receiving parallel Palestinian concessions such as recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Additional concessions and measures reportedly discussed by Kerry with the two sides include release of American funds for the Palestinian Authority, release by Israel of veteran Palestinian prisoners, building permits for Palestinians in Area C, and invoking the Arab Peace Initiative as a framework for negotiations.

Meanwhile, low-level violence continues to increase in the West Bank, fueled by the deaths of demonstrators and of a veteran prisoner in an Israeli jail. Last month, March, witnessed 560 incidents of stone throwing and 80 involving Molotov cocktails, representing an increase of several hundred percent. The violence adds to the urgency of Kerry's effort because it poses the danger of a loss of control and escalation into a new intifada.

Q. Where does Turkey fit in?

A. Kerry appears to view the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement brokered by President Barack Obama during his March visit to Israel as an opening for the US to channel Turkish prestige and ambitions within the context of the peace process. The Turks are also pushing in this direction. But first, Kerry has to ensure that the follow-up negotiations between Israel and Turkey take place and that full diplomatic and security relations are restored.

This may not be an easy task. The Turks are triumphantly parading Netanyahu's March "apology" as a major victory for Ankara and a humiliation for Jerusalem. Here and there, they appear to be presenting new conditions for normalization, such as Israeli measures to ensure greater economic prosperity in the West Bank. This has invited criticism of Netanyahu's apology in Israel from the political right--a development that might in turn toughen Netanyahu's position in negotiations with the Turks.

An additional potential complication is the apparent Turkish aspiration to exploit Ankara's close ties with Islamist Hamas in order to mediate between Hamas and Fateh and bring Gaza-based Hamas into negotiations with Israel. Here the Turks, who appear to have a degree of tentative American support, will run into opposition from Cairo, which wishes to continue monopolizing contact with Hamas. As we saw last November during Egyptian-led ceasefire negotiations to end Israeli-Hamas fighting, the Egyptians resent Turkish meddling.

Q. Indeed, what is Egypt doing about Hamas and how might this factor into Kerry's efforts?

A. The Egyptian-Hamas relationship is in itself complicated, despite the common Muslim Brotherhood roots of the regimes in Cairo and Gaza. The Egyptian army accuses Hamas of complicity in a Salafi attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai last August--an accusation Hamas denies. The army is also pursuing, for the first time, a concerted attempt to close down smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border, apparently in recognition of the fact that smuggling sends weapons and terrorists in both directions. Nor is the Egyptian army happy with Hamas' ongoing secret efforts to obtain funding and weaponry from Iran; in contacts with Israel and the US, the senior Egyptian army brass is apparently very outspoken in condemning Hamas and its behavior. Interestingly, official Egyptian spokesmen now declare that Gaza "is part of Egypt's national security."

Meanwhile, the Hamas-Israel ceasefire is slowly disintegrating, with sporadic rocket fire into Israel by Gaza-based Salafists since the Obama visit, and the beginning of Israeli retaliatory air raids. Hamas, pressured by Egypt, detained a few Salafists but then released them in a new chapter of the "revolving door" version of Palestinian anti-terrorist measures. Hamas also recently reelected Khaled Meshaal as its leader; because Meshaal is not a Gazan and is considered potentially more pragmatic than his rivals in the movement, the decision to leave him in charge is welcomed by the Egyptians as well as the Turks.

As Egypt continues to reel from domestic violence and political unrest, the last thing either Egypt or Israel needs right now is a visit to Gaza by a triumphant Turkish PM Erdogan or an attempt by him to get involved in negotiations involving Palestinians and Israelis.

Q. And where does Jordan fit in?

A. On March 31, Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II signed an agreement in Amman confirming that the king is custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. They stressed their "common goal" to defend those sites. On the one hand, there is nothing new here: the king of Jordan, a descendant of the Prophet, has traditionally been considered the Muslim figure in ultimate charge of the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) mosques, and this status was formalized in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994. On the other hand, the timing of the Amman signing seemingly bespoke a connection to the American effort to revitalize the peace process.

But what connection? One possibility is that this puts the king firmly in Abu Mazen's corner in the current jockeying over pre-negotiating positions. Another is that it is a reminder to the Israeli Arab Islamist movement, which has in recent years tried to carve out for itself a role in maintaining the Temple Mount mosques, that it has no formal status regarding Jerusalem. In this connection, the Abdullah-Abbas agreement is also directed at Hamas along with those in the Arab world, like Egypt and Qatar, who tend to prefer Hamas over the PLO. Qatar, in particular, just announced a billion dollar "save Jerusalem fund" that is presumably not to the liking of either Jordan or the Ramallah-based PLO.

Finally, the king of Jordan may be shoring up his own domestic and inter-Arab status, both in view of domestic unrest and as a prelude to hosting some sort of convocation convened in Amman by Kerry to launch a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Q. The bottom line?

A. So far there is none. Kerry has apparently told Israeli and Palestinian leaders that he hopes, after a three month preparatory period, to present a proposal for the resumption of talks. Apparently, Kerry himself has not yet decided whether, and how, to proceed in his effort to restart the process, and is simply (and wisely) beginning by exploring all the options. Kerry_and_Netanyahu_2013MarchFB.jpg