Are Peace Talks Moving Forward?

The United States and Israel continue to confirm that the peace process will move forward in the coming weeks, and Israeli and Palestinian delegations will meet in Washington to hammer out the details. U.S. Secretary John Kerry issued a statement from Amman, Jordan on Friday, July 19, 2013 claiming that both sides "reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations." He added that the agreement is still in the process of being finalized.

Despite the fact that American and Israeli leaders seem to think the process is being finalized, the Palestinians continue to say it is not. They deny that any agreement has been reached, and they will only admit to sending a low-level delegation to Washington to discuss their objections and preconditions for such peace talks to begin.

While the Palestinians argue among themselves about whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should agree to sit down across from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the peace table, the alliance between the U.S. and Israel seems to be holding firm. It is the Palestinians that are looking as if they are retreating now, not the Israelis.

There is a backstory tied to this latest peace development. As Netanyahu has proved his willingness to compromise with the Palestinians, the United States has shown a greater commitment to Israel's defense needs.

With little press coverage of his visit, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Israel to meet with senior Israeli defense officials soon after Kerry's announcement. During Carter's first official trip to Israel, he confirmed that the defense relationship between both countries was stronger than ever. He discussed a range of security issues of strategic importance, including Iran and Syria. As part of Carter's visit, he observed Israel's military capabilities and tactical operations at army bases and training installations near Tel Aviv. He was quoted on an official American defense site (the American Forces Press Service) as saying, "protecting America means protecting Israel, and that's why we're here in the first place."

At the same time Carter visited Israel, the IDF Home Front Command launched an exercise in Tel Aviv, simulating a chemical and conventional missile attack. While Israel says the exercise was planned last year, it is interesting that Carter happened to be in the country during the preparation and staging of this drill. Israeli security officials have assessed that the chances of a chemical attack on the population is low. But, there are fears in the ranks that the risks have become higher due to the changing events in Syria. Reportedly, Syria is attracting thousands of radical jihadists, many of whom are basing their operations on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Hoping not only to bring down the Assad regime, these Islamic fighters want to establish a caliphate state in Syria that extends to the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan and Lebanon.

So, while defense cooperation between the U.S. and Israel continues quietly behind the scenes, the public is distracted by a process of peace that may be advancing or may not. Netanyahu's coalition partners are already voicing their concerns that he has conceded to Palestinian pre-conditions with a de facto settlement freeze and a willingness to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails with "blood on their hands." In order to keep right-wing members of his coalition from bolting the government, Netanyahu has said he will bring any final peace agreement to a national referendum.

If Kerry is able to get the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table, this will be considered a major U.S. achievement, advancing America's status as a formidable player in the Middle East peace process. In reality, it will be a temporary face-saving measure to prop up U.S. President Barack Obama's failing foreign policy. There has been an absence of American leadership in the region since the Arab Spring began, and now the U.S. may have an opportunity to show strength through renewed credibility as a power broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This is why Israel's diplomatic cooperation has been so important, and why America's military commitment to the Jewish State has been demonstrated on the heels of Kerry's peace announcement -- linkage that both sides would deny.

Regardless of the outcome at this latest attempt to jump-start the peace process, the U.S. may be agreeable now to working closer with Israel's timetable regarding a possible strike on Iran's nuclear sites. Israel also needs American support for continued strikes on Syria's chemical plants and advanced weapons systems that threaten Israel's national security. One of Israel's major objectives is to stop Assad from using these weapons supplied by Russia and Iran.

Israeli leaders are also worried that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will try and exploit a moderate image of President-elect Hassan Rouhani to Western powers. The newly elected Iranian president is considered a loyal diehard of the regime and a strong proponent of the Islamic Revolution, despite his image in the media as a reformer. Israel wants to step up the pressure for greater international sanctions against Iran, while at the same time, keeping a credible military option on the table. Looking to push Iran into further diplomatic isolation, Israel needs strong U.S. backing now.

Netanyahu recently expressed concern that Iran is only weeks away from crossing his "red line" in the development of enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. Rouhani's reaction was to laugh at Israel's warnings to the international community. Netanyahu sees Rouhani as a wolf in sheep's clothing; a man who could use charm and persuasion to try and get the West to ease sanctions while dropping the military option.

Israel is seeking commitments from the U.S. and Western powers to keep all options on the table. By Netanyahu agreeing to the process of peace with Abbas, he should now have full American support concerning military action against the Islamic regime.

If Israelis and Palestinians do end up sitting at the peace table it will neutralize Iran's ability to stir up Arab strife on the streets of a region already boiling over in violence and chaos. Iran will have less capability to use leveraging to get Sunnis to side with Shiites against Israel, if the Palestinians are quietly cooperating with the Jewish State.

This is one reason why Netanyahu is willing to reach out to Abbas with the kind of concessions he feels he can offer without his government coalition breaking apart. But, currently, his concessions do not seem to be meeting Palestinian pre-conditions. So far, Netanyahu is holding his ground not to offer the Palestinians anything that would compromise the security of the Jewish State or cause civil war between the settlers and the rest of the country. Agreeing to pre-1967 borders, even before talks begin, would be political suicide for Netanyahu, and would cause a shakeup in his government from those who feel these borders are indefensible.

Another advantage of the Israelis and Palestinians being locked up together in peace negotiations would be to quench the aspirations of the Europeans. Recently, the EU issued new guidelines against rewarding prizes, grants, and funding to Israeli entities over the Green Line. This was the European Commission's attempt to bias the outcome of peace negotiations. Taking sides in the peace process, by making it clear that they want nothing to do with Israeli programs initiated within the pre-1967 borders, clarified the EU's position of favoring the Palestinians. This angered Israeli officials who felt like the Europeans were trying to undermine Kerry's peace initiative.

Since that announcement, the Europeans have put Hizb'allah's military wing on their official terrorist list, which can be seen as an olive branch extended to the Israelis and the Americans. However, these recent attempts by the Europeans at leveraging in order to place themselves as players in the Middle East peace arena will not work. They will be neutralized, like Iran, from stirring up diplomatic trouble for Israel, as long as direct talks begin between Israel and the Palestinians. The question is: will they begin?

Meanwhile, Israel needs to act fast in order to secure whatever deals it wants from its strategic defense relationship with the U.S., in order to prepare for military action against Iran and Syria.

Because of the Israeli government's budget deficit, the IDF is involved in a wide range of defense cuts. Therefore, Israel remains even more dependent than before on the U.S. to sustain its Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region. American defense leaders say they are committed to offering Israel an unprecedented package of advanced military capabilities. Only time will tell if the U.S. comes through on its offer, and whether it will depend on how much more Israel bows to Palestinian demands in order to re-start direct peace talks at the negotiating table.

C. Hart reports on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.