U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he has given Israeli and Palestinian leaders a deadline to reach a framework agreement that would guide talks on a final peace accord.
Kerry, who concluded his trip to the Middle East today, said a time limit was necessary to determine whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were prepared to make “tough choices” to bring talks to a successful conclusion.
“I have a deadline in mind,” Kerry said at a news conference in Jerusalem yesterday. He declined to disclose the date.
A framework deal would articulate an agreed vision of peace for the first time. It would address all issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the fate of contested Jerusalem and the borders of Jewish and Palestinian states, Kerry said.
Kerry, on his 10th trip to the region, told the leaders they have to be more proactive because he can’t maintain his recent pace of visiting every two weeks, said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. He was more direct than in the past about trying to wrap up the framework accord now, so the negotiating teams can move toward his goal of reaching a final deal within months, the official said.
One of the first benchmarks for Kerry’s effort is getting Netanyahu and Abbas to meet by mid-February, said two administration officials briefed regularly on his mission. If Kerry does make progress toward a framework agreement, Netanyahu and Abbas may meet in late January or early next month, according to a Palestinian official who spoke on condition on anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk on the record. They haven’t met since September 2010.
Setting a deadline is a risky gambit for Kerry, because Israelis or Palestinians may try to run down the clock while ducking blame if the talks fail. Previously, U.S. officials have privately said a time limit may put more pressure on him than on the opposing parties. The administration officials said the deadline may have some flexibility to avoid that pitfall.
Kerry expressed optimism yesterday that he can reach a breakthrough despite the “high level of mistrust” between the two sides as they approach the prospect of resolving their conflict by establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“I know that there are those out there who, on both sides, question whether peace is possible,” Kerry told journalists in Jerusalem. “But it is clear to me that we can work to bridge the remaining gaps that do exist.”
Israel officials sounded more pessimistic. “We’ve become quite skeptical about Palestinian intentions” to reach a peace deal, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said at a press briefing today, citing what he describe as rising levels of Palestinian incitement against his country.
Kerry held consultations elsewhere in the region during his visit, meeting yesterday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Riyadh. In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they discussed the war in Syria and advances in Iraq’s Anbar province by al-Qaeda affiliated fighters, according to a U.S. official, who provided the information under ground rules calling for anonymity.
Kerry indicated Iran could play a role in talks in Geneva this month aimed at ending the Syrian civil war, signaling a shift in U.S. policy. The U.S. had previously accused Iran of propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with cash and weapons. It would be up to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to decide on an Iranian role at the Jan. 22 talks, he said.
“Now, could they contribute from the sidelines?,” Kerry said. “It may be that that could happen, but that has to be determined by the secretary general and it has to be determined by Iranian intentions themselves.”
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