The Cable

Kerry Says Formal Peace Talks to Begin Within Two Weeks

The prelude to peace talks is ending, and the main event may be days away.

At a Tuesday press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry said Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to launch formal peace talks in the next two weeks as a part of a nine-month effort to resolve the territorial conflict once and for all.

Kerry also announced that all final-status issues (borders, land swaps, right of return for Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, etc) are on the table without preconditions, and that the forthcoming meetings would take place in Israel or the Palestinian territories.

"While I understand the skepticism, I don't share it, and I don't think we have time for it," he said. "I firmly believe the negotiators ... can make peace for one simple reason. Because they must." 

The announcement follows meetings between an American team led by longtime Middle East hand Martin Indyk, Israelis, represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, and Palestinians, represented by Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and economist Mohammad Shtayyeh, on Monday night and Tuesday morning.

And if you're looking for more details about the forthcoming talks in the newspapers, you're wasting your time, Kerry said. "No one should consider reports reliable unless they come from me," he said, noting that he'll be the only one authorized to comment on negotiations in the next nine months.

Livni and Erekat flanked Kerry during his announcement and both delivered optimistic remarks.

"I'm delighted that all final-status negotiations are on the table," said Erekat. "It's time for the Palestinians to live in peace, freedom and dignity within their own sovereign state."

Livni added: "I believe that history is not made by cynics, it is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. Let us be these people."

Livni, of the liberal Hatnua party, who led negotiations during the last round of peace talks four years ago, has in the past favored a softer line than her boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, she pointedly praised him Tuesday for his decision to free a batch of Palestinian prisoners in the next several months, which she called a "courageous act of leadership by Prime Minister Netanyahu." The line provoked a quip by Robert Danin, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations: "Secretary Kerry appears to be on the verge of one major breakthrough: peace between Tzipi Livni and PM Netanyahu!" One of the byproducts of Livni and Netanyahu's rocky relationship was the decision to send Molcho, a Netanyahu loyalist, to Washington alongside her.

Without a doubt, the path ahead is strewn with landmines as Israelis and Palestinians untangle a range of thorny issues including how to divide Jerusalem, where to carve up borders and what do with Palestinian refugees.

Today's announcement caps a less than 48-hour visit to Washington by the negotiators that including a meeting with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning and a Monday night iftar dinner at the White House.

"The time has come for lasting peace," said Kerry. "I'm convinced that we can get there."

The Cable

Cyber Jihadists, State Department Now In Full-Blown Twitter War

Since 2011, the State Department has sponsored a Digital Outreach Team tasked with countering al Qaeda propaganda on the Internet. In its brief existence, it's difficult to quantify the team's progress (and easy to laugh at its failures), but there's one thing it is doing successfully: Making the right enemies.

The Digital Outreach Team (DOT) is part of the larger Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an interagency center housed at the State Department with a presidential mandate to subvert al Qaeda's online outreach efforts (full disclosure: I helped set up the DOT's current operations while at the State Department). The Center and the DOT venture on Twitter is relatively new and until now elicited little more than scorn from jihadi tweeters. But this month, it started to make some serious waves.  

On July 17, a prominent jihadi on Twitter, Mu`awiya al-Qahtani (M_Al_Saqr), established a new Twitter account @Al_Bttaar whose mission is a mirror image of the Digital Outreach Team's. Whereas the DOT aims to counter jihadi propaganda and discredit its promulgators using social media, @Al_Bttaar aims to spread that propaganda and silence its detractors. Now, there is reason to believe the @Al_Bttaar initiative is a direct response to the DOT’s activities: not only is it patterned after the DOT, its opening salvo was directed against one of the DOT’s tweeters, Tariq Ramzi (@dsdotar).

The DOT first provoked complaints from jihadis after crashing mainstream forums and casting their form of radical Islam in a negative light.  The day after @Al_Bttaar’s inaugural tweets, the group organized its first Twitter “raid,” an effort to take down the State Department's account. The method was pretty simple: Just click the “report” button multiple times until a Twitter administrator removes the account.

Five minutes after passing out the instructions, the administrator posted the address of @dsdotar. Although there was spotty information during the attack on how it was going, @Al_Bttaar announced the following day that it had failed. The administrator attributed the failure to the lack of participation -- only 150 people reported the enemy account, short of the goal of 400 -- and to the fact that people had followed the account before reporting it. (In a moment of internal bickering: one of the group’s followers noted that it was the administrator’s themselves who had recommended following the account.)

@Al_Bttaar has since moved on to conduct several attacks against other Twitter users, all of whom are Arabs who have displeased them in one way or the other.Few of them have been successful but that has not dampened the group’s enthusiasm or that of its now 1,570 followers. In one of its latest tweets, it promises even more action in the days to come.

So far, @Al_Bttaar’s efforts on Twitter are pretty small scale, which could also be said of the DOT’s activities. Part of the reason is resources: there are not many jihadis or counter-jihadis. But another reason is that both sides realize that this influence game is not about swaying large numbers of people but rather persuading just a few to join or turn away. Seen in this light, @Al_Bttaar’s antics probably have less to do with actually silencing its enemies than it does with attracting enthusiastic new followers who like its aggressive approach.

Will McCants is an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses and a former State Department senior advisor for countering violent extremism.