U.S. scrambles as prisoner release, Jewish state issue threaten to sink talks



WASHINGTON (JTA) – The Obama administration is scrambling to salvage Israeli-Palestinian talks threatened by disputes over core identity issues for each side: recognition of the state’s Jewish character for Israel, the release of prisoners for the Palestinians.

Martin Indyk, the peace process envoy for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, is in Israel and the West Bank this week attempting to salvage the talks ahead of Saturday’s deadline for a fourth release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel.

“We are at a pivotal time in the negotiations, and we are encouraging the leaders to make the smart, hard and historic choices needed to achieve a lasting peace,” a U.S. official told JTA on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Israeli officials have said that if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas does not agree to an extension of the talks — and the terms governing them, which include refraining from seeking statehood recognition in international forums — the planned release on March 29 of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners will not take place.

Palestinian officials have suggested that if a new round of prisoners are not released, they will accelerate efforts to achieve statehood recognition outside the structure of peace negotiations.

The parlous state of the talks has forced Indyk and Kerry to abandon for now their hopes of unveiling a U.S.-drafted framework for a final peace agreement that would form the basis of ongoing talks. Instead, insiders say, Indyk is simply seeking the extension of the talks for another nine months.

Also looming large over the talks is Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas has said he could never agree to such a demand; Israeli leaders say it must be part of a permanent agreement.

The distance between the sides, barely a month before the April 29 deadline initially set for the talks to conclude, has led Kerry — whose enthusiasm has driven the talks — to sound pessimistic notes.

“The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I’ve ever seen — on both sides,” Kerry said in March 14 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives. “Neither believes the other is really serious. Neither believes that the other is prepared to make some of the big choices that have to be made here.”

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment to JTA on whether the prisoner release would go ahead.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry could reinsert himself into the talks as soon as this week.

“They’ve been in very close contact as you know, because we talk about this pretty regularly over the phone,” she told reporters in a March 21 briefing, speaking of Kerry’s interactions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. “Whether or not there are meetings next week, that is certainly possible, but we’re still working through the schedule.”

A surprise Kerry stopover in Israel and the West Bank would be significant because of his current preoccupation with the Ukraine crisis. His meetings this week in Europe are primarily focused on how best to deal with Russia’s takeover of Crimea.

Analysts said the Israeli-Palestinian talks would probably survive the current crisis, if only because both sides have much to lose otherwise.

Yossi Alpher, an analyst who advised Israel’s government during the 2000 Camp David summit, said a breakdown in talks would be a boost to the movement seeking to delegitimize Israel and would come at a steep economic cost for the Palestinians in the form of lost European subsidies — and both Netanyahu and Abbas know it.

If the European Union is serious about threats to cut subsidies to the Palestinian Authority should Abbas walk away from talks, “Abu Mazen will have no choice except to fold,” Alpher said, using the popular name for the P.A. leader.

“Netanyahu is aware of the threat of delegitimation and boycotts,” Alpher said. For both leaders, he said, “as long as you can extend this status of talking about a nonexistent framework agreement, the better.”

Ghaith al-Omari, the director of the American Task Force on Palestine and a former adviser to Abbas, said the alternative to talks for the Palestinians — seeking statehood status in world forums — is not an attractive one.

“It is costly,” he said, referring to the cuts in assistance from the United States and other Western countries that such a course of action would likely bring.

Additionally, al-Omari said, Abbas already played out the statehood recognition gambit in 2012 when the U.N. General Assembly accorded it nonmember-state observer status.

“It is a strategy of diminishing political returns,” he said. “When you go to the General Assembly the first time, you have TV screens. By the seventh time, when you’re at the World Health Organization, it won’t get much attention.”

Aaron David Miller, a vice president of the Wilson Center for International Scholars think tank and a former U.S. Middle East negotiator, said Kerry made a mistake in allowing the advancement of the talks to hinge on an issue as sensitive to both sides as prisoners.

“It’s such an issue of sensitivity for Abbas, it is the one issue that is likely to do damage to the process,” Miller said.

To restart talks, Israel had pledged to release 104 Palestinian prisoners incarcerated since before the Oslo peace process was launched in 1993. All but 26 have been released in three batches.

The issue is grating to the Palestinians in part because they believe that the prisoners, who were convicted of involvement in murders, were instrumental to the struggle that brought Israel into peace talks decades ago.

Several Israeli Cabinet ministers have said the Palestinians have not demonstrated seriousness in the talks, which could relieve Israel of its obligation to release the final group of prisoners.

“The keys to the prison doors are in the hands of Abu Mazen,” Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister and top negotiator, said last week.

Abbas told Obama when they met last week that he would agree to continue the talks if Israel released some high-profile prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Abbas’ Fatah movement. Barghouti is serving five life sentences in connection with terrorist attacks during the second intifada.

Netanyahu is not likely to agree to such a deal, given that his Cabinet already is resisting the release of the last batch of prisoners.

Israel’s demand on recognition as a Jewish state also has re-emerged as an issue in recent weeks, with Abbas and the Arab League saying it is a non-starter. The United States has backed Israel’s position, though Kerry expressed consternation recently over the centrality assumed by the issue.

Kerry told Congress on March 15 that “it’s a mistake for some people to be, you know, raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude towards the possibility of a state and peace.”

Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president of the Foundation for Defense for Democracies, said the real surprise was that the talks had lasted this long. Schanzer, whose recent book, “State of Failure,” offered a sharp critique of the Palestinian Authority, counted himself among the initial skeptics.

“It has been moving forward better than anyone expected,” he said. “Those who pooh-poohed it have been wrong. But that doesn’t mean that it was a success. It just hasn’t failed.”

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