WASHINGTON – Amid simmering tensions over Iran policy, the Obama and Netanyahu governments appear to have quietly forged common ground in recent weeks on Israeli-Palestinian talks, with the United States accepting that a possible “framework” agreement might not address every outstanding issue in the negotiations.
Such an agreement, the U.S. and Israel seem to agree, would maintain a role for Israel in providing for its security, presumably by maintaining some form of military presence in the West Bank.
What’s not clear is if the Palestinians will go along.
As recently as October, Martin Indyk, the lead American peace negotiator, told J Street that an interim agreement was not in the cards. The objective, he told the liberal Israel policy group, was a final-status agreement.
Yet over the weekend, addressing the annual Saban Forum in Washington, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry each suggested there would be a middle phase aimed at addressing Israel’s lingering security concerns.
“I think it is possible over the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes better to move forward than move backwards,” Obama told the annual forum on Saturday.
“We have spent a lot of time working with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his entire team to understand from an Israeli perspective what is required for the security of Israel in such a scenario,” he said.
Netanyahu’s comments to the forum, delivered the next day via satellite, reiterated Israel’s longstanding position that under any agreement it must retain the ability to provide for its own security.
“I think that any kind of peace we’ll have is likely, initially at least, to be a cold peace,” Netanyahu said.
“So there must be ironclad security arrangements to protect the peace, arrangements that allow Israel to defend itself by itself against any possible threat. And those arrangements must be based on Israel’s own forces.”
For years, the question of Israel’s long-term security presence in the West Bank has dogged attempts by Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace talks. Israel has long maintained that it must retain a security corridor in the Jordan Valley. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said that keeping Israeli forces in place would fatally undermine a deal.
The Obama administration appears to have sided with Israel on this point by accepting that, at least initially, Israel will have a role in securing borders and fighting terrorism in Palestinian areas, among other security responsibilities.
“Needless to say, for a period of time this will obviously involve Israeli participation,” Kerry told the Saban Forum. “It has to.”
On Monday, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, denied that references to a “framework” agreement implied the administration is backing away from its pursuit of a final-status agreement, though she declined to elaborate on what “framework” means.
“The secretary – and this may have caused some of the confusion – and the president both used the term ‘framework’ this weekend,” Psaki said at her daily media briefing. “I think some…took that to mean interim. It does not mean interim. We still remain focused on a final-status agreement.”
Nevertheless, the administration’s language was perceived as marking a dramatic departure from previous understandings.
“This contradicts completely what we were promised by the American secretary of state at the beginning of this peace process – to avoid any partial or interim agreements,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Abbas aide, told the Voice of Palestine radio on Monday.
The shift follows a comprehensive review of Israeli security needs led by Gen. John Allen, a former commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Allen was present at the Saban Forum but did not speak publicly.