Historic Framework or Reheated Old Coffee Dregs?

PRINCETON, New Jersey—The widespread anticipation among what seems like just 27 people in the United States who follow the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will soon table a set of American positions or proposals for the key elements of a “framework agreement” that would define the next phase of the permanent status talks and extend them beyond the April deadline.
We are also told two other significant things by some among the 27 faithful followers: The U.S. positions on key issues are not fixed and could change before the framework is made public, and, more significantly, the Palestinian and Israeli leaders could signal their willingness to keep negotiating within the framework particulars but without formally accepting them all. What has been leaked to date, especially to Israeli media by leaders of Jewish organizations who were briefed last week by the leader of the American negotiating team, Martin Indyk, suggests that with only one big exception, the framework contains little of major new significance.
The leaked reports say that the United States will support 85 percent of Israeli Jewish settlers staying in their colonies built on occupied Palestinian lands that will become part of Israel, in return for land swaps; the United States will support Israeli troops staying in the Jordan Valley for a period of time while Washington also provides significant new security guarantees; the two parties would formally accept Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the Palestinian West Bank-Gaza state as the homeland of the Palestinians; compensation would be paid to Palestinians who fled or were evicted from their homes inside present day Israel, and also to Jews who fled or were forced out of Arab countries; the Palestinian state would have its capital in parts of Arab East Jerusalem that Israeli has not yet colonized; and, reportedly, Palestinian refugees would return to the new West Bank-Gaza state but not to Israel itself.
All these are variations on themes that have been aired by both sides during decades of discussions and negotiations. If the leaks are accurate, it seems the United States continues its old habit of avoiding an even-handed attitude that is anchored in the international rule of law and UN resolutions, and instead sides with the Israelis on the two most important issues for both sides: the fate and right of return of the Palestinian refugees, and formal Palestinian acknowledgment and acceptance of Israel as the—take your pick—home, state, or homeland of the Jewish people. The formal unveiling of the American positions soon should clarify these and other points that nevertheless have the look, smell and feel of reheated old coffee dregs.
The one noteworthy new element is that the United States is offering its own proposals for permanent status agreements that it feels both sides could accept. Washington has long pushed both sides to make small gestures of good intentions while negotiating, like releasing prisoners or stopping military or media attacks. These have always failed to get beyond the symbolic gesture stage. So for the United States to put on the table its concept of a workable peace agreement is new and perhaps significant—depending on the details and fairness of the proposals, and how hard the United States and others work to have them accepted by both sides.
From what has been leaked, though, my impression is that Kerry-Indyk are offering a new framework that perpetuates and continues to operate within the boundaries and the fatal constraints of the failed old frameworks that shaped American mediation since the 1970s. This lame approach has always failed for three key reasons: It never really touched the core issues of the conflict for both sides (ending refugeehood for Palestinians, and securing formal acceptance and legitimacy for Israelis in the region); it left the most difficult issues for a future date while concentrating on short-term confidence-building measures that always collapsed because the crucial core issues remained unresolved; and, it made the security and Zionist Jewish nationalist identity of Israel the anchors and guidelines for a final status agreement, with Palestinian rights and demands having to adjust to comply with Israeli dictates.
The short-term logistical problem that Kerry-Indyk face is that both the Israeli negotiators working for Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians under President Mahmoud Abbas face precarious domestic political situations that are worsened by steadily hardening rightward drifts among both their publics. Neither side can make the needed major concessions that Kerry-Indyk need to make their framework agreement plan succeed, such as: Netanyahu dropping or Abbas accepting the “Jewish homeland” demand that the Americans now accept and repeat often in public; or, Abbas dropping or Netanyahu accepting the principle of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their original homes, which obviously would be negotiated in practice by mutual consent. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global