The peace talks have now shifted to linguistic hairsplitting. That is what those in the know would tell you. Although the talks are ostensibly about a framework agreement, the wise sages among us have noted it would have been better to talk about an "agreement framework."
Is there any difference? A framework agreement is about substance, the nuts and bolts of a deal. An agreement framework would also refer to the substance, but its wording would be focused on propelling the Palestinians toward agreeing to an extended deadline.
This would allow the talks to continue for another year, well past the current expiration date in April 2014. Allow me to clarify: An agreement framework would let the Americans have the two parties present very different positions, but it would also let the Obama administration keep mum on what the preferred solution should look like.
The most practical goal right now is gaining more time; only later should the parties iron out their differences. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came back to the Middle East only to discover that the gulf separating the two parties was as wide as ever. This is why Kerry, despite the many insights from his trip, is poised to return home without having hashed out the details of an "agreement framework." Unless, of course, some dramatic breakthrough is announced in Jerusalem and/or Ramallah on Sunday.
Having Kerry go back empty-handed would be a convenient outcome for the Palestinians. At least for now. They don't want a binding document saying the deadline has been extended.
Kerry wants January 2014 to be the month when things are finalized. He is pressing the two sides on this. While there may be four more months before the hourglass empties, he knows that kicking the can down the road would cost dearly.
But he would be well served by extending the deadline another year. To do that, he could use the Israeli currency now in circulation: the release of Palestinians who have been convicted of national security crimes; a moratorium on settlement construction throughout the talks; tacit American approval of a Palestinian statehood bid that would culminate with full-fledged U.N. membership. A combination of all of these would also possible.
January is the month of pressure. It will see a lot of talk about extending the talks, with little substance. That is why EU leaders have been asked to rally behind this cause, as a carrot. When they visit the region they will try to lure the two sides with their soft spoken rhetoric.
Their campaign was launched on Friday, when French Ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonnave penned an unusual op-ed in Haaretz. "The EU's offer still stands, despite the Israeli government's resounding silence," the title said. Maisonnave said the EU presented Israel with a golden opportunity to upgrade its relations, only to be rebuffed.
According to Masionnave, if Israel accepts the EU's plan, it will enjoy a "privileged partnership” status that would boost its ties with member states. Turkey got a similar deal. This, according to Masionnave, would create prosperity and deal a crushing blow to those who seek to boycott Israel. So why has Israel dithered on this offer, which has so many things it considers vital?
The ambassador pleaded with "government ministers and leaders of the opposition, Knesset members, entrepreneurs, scientists, artists and intellectuals" to engage him on this matter. He even provided an email address and called for discussion on the subject.
You cannot accuse him of not thinking outside the box.
For the time being, it is all about carrots, not sticks. But behind the friendly demeanor and smiling face, there is more. Europe is growling at Israel, while disguising it as sweet talk. And it is doing so on behalf of the U.S. mediator who is running the show.