Meeting 79-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris Feb. 19, 70-year-old Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to pull off what no other U.S. diplomat accomplished in Israel’s 66-year-old history. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, it’s battled Arabs in either all-out war or continuous guerrilla fighting. Founding the Palestine Liberation Organization May 24, 1964, Yasser Arafat never realized his dream of a Palestinian State. Battling Israel for the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ongoing guerrilla war, including two Palestinian Intifadas or uprisings, Arafat went to his grave Nov. 11, 2004 never realizing his dream of an indpendent state. Now it’s up to Abbas to negotiate for a Palestinian state, juggling the demands of uncompromising factions together with Israel’s own demands and requirements for security.
Kerry meets Abbas in Paris with measured expectations about what can be done to put a final status deal together. Abbas showed some softening on the once unthinkable of condition of Palestinians “right of return” inside Israel’s current borders. Abbas has accepted that Israel won’t accept any major demographic changes, finding other ways to compensate Palestinians for their refugee status. While negotiating for a future state, Abbas knows he doesn’t speak for Gaza-based Hamas who remains at war with Israel. Whether ignored or not, Kerry and Abbas know that any deal struck with Israel won’t be accepted by Hamas. Hamas, founded by sight-impaired quadraplegic Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1987, remains at war with Israel with no intent of making peace. Hamas still avengies Israeli hits on Yassin March 22, 2004 and his successor Abdel Aziz al-Rantizi April 17, 2004.
Kerry knows the real sticking point for Abbas involves the demand East Jerusalem as the new state’s capital. Because of the holy Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, Palestinians refuse to compromise on any state without East Jerusalem, the Arab quarter as their capital. “Secretary Kerry will meet with Palestinian Authority President Abbas in Paris, France on Wednesday to discuss ongoing negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis,” said State Department spokeswoman Jill Psaki in Abu Dhabi. Showing a willingness to compromise on the “right of return,” Abbas seeks East Jerusalem, more than anything else. Willing to compromise on the “right of return,” Israeli settlements in the West Bank and boundaries of a future state, Abbas wants East Jerusalem as his capital. If Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu can bend on East Jerusalem, a Mideast peace is in reach.
Netanyahu must decide what’s best for Israel: Cutting a workable deal or continuing the ongoing status quo of guerrilla war. Since former President Jimmy Carter cut a deal between Egyptians and Israelis in 1978, it’s been difficult to make progress toward a peace deal with Palestinians. Faced today with its own problems with radical Islam, Egypt won’t be much help in today’s peace talks. Given the symbolic nature of East Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s in the driver’s seat when it comes to winning concessions from Abbas. If Netanyahu can figure out security arrangements in East Jerusalem, he should hammer the best deal with Abbas. Abbas is willing to make concession on every other thorny issue, if Netanyahu can figure out a way to give East Jerusalem to Palestinians. Responding to questions about the “right of return,” Abbas showed more flexibility.
Israel has strong incentives from the U.S. and EU to finish a final status agreement. Concerns over a EU trade embargo on Israeli agriculture, Netanyahu need to weigh carefully what to offer Abbas. “But we do not seek either to flood Israel with millions [of refugees] or to change its social composition,” said Abbas, giving Netanyahu the bargaining chip to cut a deal. Netanyahu’s reluctance to go along with East Jerusalem has more to do with Hamas ongoing war against Israel. Netanyahu sees any deal a compromise to Hamas’ commitment of destroying the Jewish State. It’s ironic that the current boundaries for a future state are made possible because of Israeli spoils of the 1967 War. Past generations of peace talks under Arafat demanded Israel return to the pre-1967 borders, consistent with 1967 U.N. Resolution 242, calling for a return to the pre-Six-Day War borders.
When Kerry meets with Abbas in Paris, he needs to heed Abbas’ bottom line in terms of negotiating for a comprehensive peace. Kerry knows the symbolic importance of East Jerusalem to a future Palestinian state. If Netanyahu can find a way to solve the security dilemma and compromise on dividing Jerusalem, he’d become an icon delivering a comprehensive Mideast peace. Even Hamas would have to back off from their ongoing war against the Jewish State. Regardless of all the other issues, including the right of return, boundaries of a future state and the plight of settlements in West Bank, offering Jerusalem as the capital for new Palestinian state would help bring about the deal. Getting East Jerusalem with its access to Al Aqsa Mosque would be a coup d’etat for Palestinians. Rejecting East Jerusalem maintains the status quo, making a peace deal all the more unlikely.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.