During his tenure as Secretary of State, John Kerry has placed an emphasis on the Israel-Palestine peace process – or, more accurately, on restarting the peace process, which has been totally stalled for some years. It was largely due to Kerry's personal efforts that direct talks resumed in July, after a three year hiatus. There have been around 20 meetings, the details of which have remained secret. But if appearances are anything to go by, progress beyond that has been slow.
It appears that Kerry – who has made 10 visits to the region since becoming Secretary of State – plans to start 2014 in the same spirit. As the New Year commenced, he flew once again to the Middle East to attempt to secure a "framework" for a final agreement between the two sides.
What this means is that he hopes to achieve a consensus on core issues such as security, borders, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The idea is that once this consensus is achieved, all the parties can be working towards a comprehensive agreement. Of course, these are the very same issues that have prevented any meaningful peace agreement in the past, and so a "consensus" would simply mean finding enough common ground to move forward. Speaking to Reuters this week, a US state department official was cautious, saying that Kerry did not expect a "breakthrough" although he was pushing both sides to agree on the broad points. This document would form the basis for a final peace agreement.
Although the details of the framework have not been released, the same official stressed that much of it has "been generated as a result of the negotiations between the parties themselves". It would be short – less than a dozen pages – and would not be signed by Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It would most likely note the reservations that both sides have about some of the elements. According to some reports, it could be made public in order to prepare both Israeli and Palestinian people for what a final peace treaty might look like.
Is this a significant moment in the Middle East peace process? Critics have already branded it an attempt to play for time. It is certainly true that Kerry is keen to retain a sense of momentum – and to stick to his aim of reaching an agreement by April. If a framework is agreed, this formalisation will allow Kerry to continue the process past his April deadline without losing face. The US official told Reuters that Kerry had a sense of "urgency" and wanted to "strike while the iron is hot".
But it is also worth remembering that a framework agreement is not a new concept. The Oslo Accords, introduced in 1993, was hailed as a historic breakthrough, setting as it did the framework that was supposed to eventually lead to a final peace agreement. Of course, as the mere existence of Kerry's current efforts shows, 20 years later, that peace agreement has still not arrived. Analysts from left and right, from Israel and Palestine, have questioned whether another framework agreement is simply demonstrating the lack of progress towards peace, and admitting defeat on resolving the big issues.
Speaking to the New York Times, Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations was unequivocal. "We're well past the time for constructive ambiguity," he said. "Any framework agreement would have to have a significant degree of clarity in order to reverse that trend."
Of course, beyond practical concerns like extending the time limit, the aim of the framework is challenging but necessary: getting both sides to reveal their bottom line. But there is nothing to suggest that anything has changed on fundamental issues like the status of Jerusalem, security in the West Bank, and Israel's identity as a Jewish state – and therefore nothing to suggest that the deadlock will end. Given this, and the recent past example of the Oslo Accords, which did not live up to their early promise and ultimately failed to deliver peace, it is difficult to see how this measure will be anything more than a sticking plaster.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.