July 19, 2013 | Policy Brief

Netanyahu, Abbas and the Kerry Initiative

July 19, 2013 | Policy Brief

Netanyahu, Abbas and the Kerry Initiative

Secretary of State John Kerry announced today that, after six trips to the Middle East, he has successfully convinced the Israelis and the Palestinians to establish “a basis” for resuming diplomacy.

The announcement is a significant win for Kerry, who invested a great deal of personal capital in his efforts. But the very prospect of renewed negotiations raises risks for both Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu won his re-election in January in a race that barely addressed the Palestinian-Israeli issue. His cabinet is mainly focused on regional security, particularly the threat posed by Iran. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, was awarded the unpopular Palestinian portfolio, and few expected her to play an active role. Indeed, the Israeli press earlier this year leaked comments by the head of the Shin Bet (internal security) concluding that Abbas did not have the power to undertake serious negotiations, much less to conclude a settlement on behalf of the Palestinians.

Similarly, when they are faced with the prospect of painful concessions on land and sovereignty in the West Bank and Jerusalem, it is unclear whether members of Netanyahu’s coalition, dominated by the right-leaning Likud-Beiteinu bloc, will be willing to accept the recommendations of their leader.

Mr. Abbas, for his part, has spent the better part of the last few years signaling to the Palestinian people that the bilateral era is over, focusing his diplomatic efforts instead on gaining unilateral recognition for the “State of Palestine” at the United Nations. Lately, he has been threatening to seek Palestinian acceptance in the International Criminal Court in order to pursue punitive measures against the Israelis. Key members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the decision-making body that has been the driving force behind Abbas’ unilateral campaign, are reportedly opposed to a return to negotiations.

There is also the thorny question of Palestinian reconciliation. By jump-starting peace talks, Kerry has scuttled talks between the PLO and Hamas, the violent faction that is steadfastly opposed to negotiating with the Israelis. Abbas will need to justify this trade-off to the Palestinian people, who consistently voice their desire to see the West Bank and Gaza Strip reunified under one political leadership.

Domestic politics on both sides will determine the success of Kerry’s initiative. In the early days, Kerry will need to be very sensitive to these considerations. If he pushes too far and too fast, political dissent from within could doom his initiative before it starts.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Israel Palestinian Politics