By David Ignatius
TEL AVIV — For Secretary of State John Kerry, diplomacy has centered on what might be called the art of the interim deal. He has tackled two of the world’s toughest issues — the Iranian nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian problem — and has fashioned tentative formulas outlining the shape of a final accord even though the parties are far from such comprehensive settlements.
Kerry’s tool has been the “framework agreement.” He seeks to bring the parties together on an initial document that frames the issues and sweetens the bargaining with confidence-building measures. When Kerry hits impasses, he can turn to rollover agreements that extend the discussions for another six or nine months while the participants try to crack the final-status issues.
Kerry has used this phased approach in his two ambitious diplomatic campaigns over the past year. In November, he brokered an interim agreement with Iran in Geneva that froze that country’s nuclear program for six months while the parties attempt a permanent deal. Both Iranians and Americans privately doubt a final pact can be reached in that time frame, but if good-faith bargaining continues, Iran and the P5+1 group may agree to extend the interim freeze another six months. The U.S. has officially been mum on any such extension.
Kerry is trying something similar on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which for a generation has been the diplomatic world’s version of “Mission Impossible.” Kerry got the two sides to agree last July to open negotiations and make friendly gestures. Now, with his nine-month window set to close in April, Kerry is drafting an interim framework agreement for this problem, too.
President Obama stayed in the background on both sets of negotiations last year, but he cited them in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. Fair enough: Obama made Iran and the Palestinian issue priorities when he took office in 2009. He got burned politically on both during his first term. But he has found in Kerry a secretary of state who was willing to embark on what were widely viewed initially as diplomatic suicide missions.
Both issues may still prove insoluble: Listening to Israeli Finance Minister Naftali Bennett at a conference here Tuesday, it was clear how vehemently the right-wing settlers’ movement he represents would oppose a Palestinian state. “Our forefathers and ancestors and our descendants will never forgive an Israeli leader who gives away our land and divides our capital,” Bennett said, his voice almost a shout.
Yet the prospect of a framework agreement, of the sort Kerry is seeking, seemed tantalizingly close in comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the gathering, which was sponsored by the Institute for National Security Studies.
Netanyahu told the conference that the U.S. was compiling a document that would summarize the points that have emerged during the months of secret Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He said that Israel might agree to further talks under this framework, while not accepting all the U.S. ideas, as long as the Palestinians agree to a demilitarized state that guarantees Israel’s security and accepts Israel’s status as a homeland for the Jewish people.
Abbas said in televised remarks to the conference that he might be willing to accept a phased, three-year Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and continued presence by other military forces, as ways of satisfying Netanyahu’s security concerns. Amos Yadlin, a retired chief of Israeli military intelligence who heads the institute that hosted the conference, described Kerry’s goal: “It’s a framework agreement, or an agreement on a framework, or an American piece of paper,” he said, but the aim was to roll forward the negotiations for another nine months.
The White House has backed Kerry’s attempt to pull together the parameters that have emerged in the negotiations, rather than simply striving for another round of confidence-building measures, such as Israeli releases of Palestinian prisoners and Abbas’ restraint from taking his case for a Palestinian state to the United Nations. As in the Iran negotiations, a framework agreement would patch over what are still wide differences on a permanent, final-status agreement. But they would reduce the risk of outright conflict while diplomacy continues.
Obama and Kerry argue that diplomatic engagement should be seen as a sign of continuing American engagement in the Middle East, rather than as part of U.S. withdrawal. That’s true, but it’s also a strategy for buying time. The success of this approach requires that the interim version becomes permanent — which is still a very long bet in both cases.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.