Who's up for Israeli-Palestinian talks next week in DC?

At least one Israeli Cabinet minister has his bags packed — and says so on the record.  At a West Bank diplomatic meeting, Energy Secretary Silvan Shalom says that Israel is ready to get started on July 30th next week, if the Palestinians agree to the talks:

An Israeli cabinet minister said on Thursday that U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians could begin next week, but neither side could formally confirm his assessment. …

“As I understand, today, I think that the Palestinians will decide to come next week,” Energy Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters during regional cooperation talks in the West Bank.

“But of course it’s not something that I can speak on behalf of the Palestinians,” he said, speaking in English. “If they will do so, as I said, the negotiations will start next Tuesday in Washington.”

But what about the borders?  Thanks in part to Barack Obama’s public statement supporting the pre-1967 borders as the basis of negotiation, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate on any other basis.  However, Reuters’ anonymous diplomatic source says that John Kerry has apparently gotten the Palestinians to back down:

A Western official briefed on Kerry’s mission said on Sunday: “There are no terms of reference or any other agreements that the ’67 lines will be the basis for negotiations.”

Really? A week ago, the same mission seemed to float a trial balloon to the exact opposite effect, one that the Israelis wasted no time in enthusiastically and angrily popping.  A few days later, John Kerry announced that the two sides had agreed to direct talks anyway — which Abbas himself quashed.

There are two possibilities.  One is that the US mission is engaging in pressure tactics via news leaks to get both sides back to the table, only conducting the campaign so awkwardly that it’s too obvious to work.  The other is that the movement has been genuine but the leaks premature.  Getting this quote on the record from a Cabinet minister tends to support the latter scenario, and we haven’t heard any direct denials in this case … yet.

The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake is a reliable voice on foreign affairs, as is Josh Rogin, who had been at Foreign Policy before joining Lake at TDB.  Lake and Rogin believe that Kerry might have succeeded in getting both sides back to the table, in part by getting Obama to stop talking about the settlement issue:

A year later, Kerry began to express private doubts about the president’s peace initiative. According to a Feb. 24, 2010, U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks, Kerry raised concerns about the peace process during a Feb. 13 meeting with Lowenstein and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani. After Thani said the idea of proximity talks would waste between four and six months, Kerry responded flatly, “We are where we are.” He added that dissent within the ranks of Abbas’s Fatah Party and demands for Israel to freeze all settlement construction meant “the ingredients for the Palestinian people to accept direct talks simply are not there.”

Fourteen months later, Kerry began to voice such criticism in public. Speaking at the 2011 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, Kerry said, “I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable.”

Eventually, Obama came around to Kerry’s view. By the end of 2010, the Obama administration had largely stopped pressuring Israel to extend the settlement freeze, and the Palestinians refused to participate in any talks with Israel in the absence of such a freeze. In a visit to Israel in March 2013, the president said he would not place any preconditions on Israel or the Palestinians to prepare the ground for new negotiations, a departure from his public pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activity as a condition for talks in his first term. …

The White House also has not engaged in any preliminary peace talks with the Palestinians or the Israelis, another key difference from the first term.

Instead those negotiations have been left to Kerry and Lowenstein, who now serves as the deputy special envoy for Middle East peace and has remained in the region. State Department officials say Lowenstein has been instrumental in the back-and-forth diplomacy that has led Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to agree in principle to come to Washington next week to begin talks about restarting the peace process. If those talks succeed, the staffer and the senator will deserve much of the credit.

In this conflict, success can be defined as just getting the parties to the table.  After that, it’s up to them.

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