Key Points

  • At a meeting early in Washington on 3 March, President Barak Obama discussed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a framework for peace talks being drawn up by US Secretary of State John Kerry. A similar meeting is expected between Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas within weeks.
  • Kerry is in advanced stages of producing a framework document – in dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators – to establish guidelines for carrying negotiations beyond the current deadline at the end of April.
  • The framework will present a US view of how gaps can be closed on the core issues including borders, security, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and mutual recognition.
  • The US aims to secure agreement to the framework as a guideline for negotiating a detailed permanent status agreement within a new time frame of up to one year. They hope to launch it before the last scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners at the end of March.
  • Accepting the framework and agreeing to further talks will create significant political challenges on both sides. The two sides would be allowed to express reservations, but only to specify them in the context of closed door discussions.

What is the Kerry Plan?

The Kerry Plan is a set of principles being drafted by a US State Department team, in dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, which aims to provide a framework for on-going negotiations to reach a detailed final status agreement. The current round of talks is due to expire at the end of April, and the US hope the framework will be the basis for extending the talks for anything up to a year.

US Secretary of State John Kerry secured agreement from Israelis and Palestinians for nine months of negotiations at the end of July 2013. Israel agreed to release, over the course of the nine months, 104 Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences for terror offenses. In return, the Palestinians agreed not to walk away from talks and not to make more unilateral efforts to secure recognition in UN or other international bodies.

After several months of talks with little progress, Kerry and his team decided to draft a framework to provide guidelines on how to bridge the gaps between the parties. According to sources close to the talks, when Kerry launches the framework, the two sides will be expected to publicly accept it as a basis for continuing the process. They will be allowed to express their reservations, but only to specify them in the context of closed door negotiations.

What will be in the framework?

The closest existing model for the framework is the Clinton Parameters, presented to both parties by President Clinton in December 2000. It is expected to be a short statement of no more than a few pages, which will outline how each final status issue will be addressed.

Borders: The framework is likely to reflect the Palestinian demand that 1967 borders be the basis for a territorial agreement, but also recognise that major settlement blocks should remain part of Israel under a land swap deal. It is expected to leave open the question of how much land should be exchanged, and exactly which settlement blocks should be retained by Israel.

Security: A central demand of Netanyahu’s is that Israel should maintain a long-term military presence on the West Bank-Jordanian border, whereas President Abbas has said he would accept an Israeli presence only for five years, and then a NATO security force.

The framework is expected to accept Israel’s security concerns, but to frame any Israeli deployment in the context of a broader security regime, and to shorten in principle that deployment as far as possible, without specifying a time period. The US has already presented proposals to minimise the scope and duration of any Israeli deployment by compensating with high tech monitoring solutions, though these proposals have not been warmly received on either side. In a recent speech at Davos Kerry spoke of the need for “security arrangements for Israel that leave it more secure, not less” but also “a full, phased, final withdrawal of the Israeli army.” Israel also demands that the Palestinian state should be demilitarised, whereas the Palestinians want a state with limited arms.

Settlements: Netanyahu is against forcibly removing settlers and his office has suggested they should have a choice to stay within the borders of a future Palestinian under Palestinian rule. There have also been reports of proposals for Israel to lease land on which outlying settlements are located from the Palestinians. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the idea of any Jewish settlements remaining, arguing that they were built illegally. It remains unclear how the US will bridge these positions, but when Kerry was asked about the fate of settlers by an Israeli interviewer in February, he answered, “I’m not sure [the settler] will have to leave his home.”

Jerusalem: The framework will likely recognise the Palestinian demand to have its capital in East Jerusalem. However, it seems unlikely that it will be as specific as the Clinton Parameters – which proposed sharing the Old City and sovereignty over the ultra-sensitive Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – since this would be too much for the Israeli government to accept at this stage. However Kerry frames Jerusalem, negotiators will have a complex challenge to reach a formula ideologically acceptable to both sides and practical.

Refugees: Palestinians want refugees and their descendants to have the right to choose from a series of resettlement and compensation options, similar to the formula outlined in the Clinton Parameters, which includes admission to Israel. Israel is opposed to Palestinians having the “right of return” to Israel’s borders. Whilst the Clinton Parameters outlined the options and allowed Israel to decide how many Palestinians it would admit, it is not clear that Kerry will be quite so specific. In Davos he spoke only about a “just and agreed” resolution to the refugee issue, which is the language used in the Arab Peace Initiative. In any event there will likely be reference to the final agreement bringing an end to all claims. This is an Israeli demand aimed at closing the file on claims relating to the 1948 war, from which the refugee issue stems. There are indications from US officials that compensation for Jewish refugees who fled persecution in Arab countries during the same period will also be addressed.

Mutual recognition and Jewish state: Netanyahu’s most persistent demand is that the Palestinians “recognise the national rights of the Jewish people in the State of Israel,” which many in Israel see as a prerequisite for lasting peace. Recognition of Jewish national rights runs deeply against the Palestinian national narrative, and Abbas has been very resistant. This issue also has implications for the refugee question, since acknowledgment that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people would undermine Palestinian claims to a right of “right of return” to Israel. The framework will likely reflect Netanyahu’s demand in some form. Kerry talked at Davos of “mutual recognition of the nation-state of the Palestinian people and the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

Other issues: The framework will also likely address some other sensitive issues, including the Palestinian demand for the release of all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

How are the parties likely to respond?

The US aim is to secure agreement for another fixed period of negotiations up to a year, ideally before the fourth and final scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners at the end of March. The two sides would be allowed to express reservations to the framework, but only to specify them in the context of closed door discussions. Nonetheless, both sides are working hard to move the text as close as possible to their own positions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to determine how to manage the presentation of this framework in a way that will not cause the right wing of his coalition to quit, in particular Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and the right wing of his own Likud party. Netanyahu will want to continue the talks with the Palestinians, but will likely stress that the framework is an American position, which Israel is not formally accepting, to avoid bringing the issue to a contentious cabinet vote.

President Abbas will have to be able to point to enough substance in the framework to justify extending talks, and to defer any return to unilateral efforts at securing recognition in international bodies. The Palestinian public are divided over whether they support peace talks. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is firmly against negotiations.

In order to agree to hold off unilateral actions, the Palestinians will likely demand further practical concessions from Israel, as they did in demanding the release of prisoners in return for engaging in talks in July. In particular they are likely to renew demands for a freeze to settlement construction. Meeting such a demand will pose another threat to the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition.

To get each side to sign up, despite the political complications, the US may offer private assurances or incentives. Ultimately, neither side wants to get the blame for collapsing the process, which will provide Kerry with some leverage over both parties.