With peace deal sinking, U.S. scrambles to buoy talks

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 and the release of prisoners for the Pales-tinians.

Martin Indyk, the peace process envoy for Secretary of State John Kerry, was in Israel and the West Bank this week attempting to salvage the talks ahead of the Saturday,  March 29 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 said March 24, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greets supporters in Ramallah on March 20 after his return from Washington. photo/jta-palestinian press office via getty images-thaer ghanaim

On March 26, Kerry interrupted a visit to Rome with President Barack Obama to make a surprise visit to Jordan to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli officials have said that if 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 of 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners on March 29 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 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 on whether the prisoner release would go ahead.

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 PA 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.”

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 prior to 1993, before the Oslo peace process was launched. 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.

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.