Kerry-Brokered Plan Sets Basis for Mideast Peace Talks

Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed yesterday on a plan aimed at renewing direct peace talks, after four days of prodding by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

While the deal is “still in the process of being formalized,” Kerry said, the two sides will seek to set a meeting in Washington “within the next week or so” to revive negotiations that broke off in September 2010.

“I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Kerry told reporters yesterday in Amman, Jordan, as he wrapped up his sixth trip to the region in as many months.

Kerry made the announcement after returning from a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That followed two meetings with Erakat earlier yesterday.

“Everyone knows that this is not easy,” Kerry said, acknowledging the difficulties that face Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in reaching a peace agreement. “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead.”

“Today, however, I am hopeful,” he said. “I’m hopeful because of the courageous leadership shown by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here.”

‘Progress Made’

Kerry declined to provide details of the agreement, and gave no indication that either the Israelis or the Palestinians had budged from core positions. Speculation about its terms is “conjecture” because “the people who know the facts are not talking about them,” he said.

Israeli Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz said today in an interview with Israel Radio the government had agreed to free a number of long-serving Palestinian security prisoners who had committed serious offenses. Netanyahu hasn’t agreed to Palestinian demands to suspend construction in West Bank settlements or declare that the final settlement on borders will be based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines, Steinitz said.

The Palestinians have committed to at least nine months of negotiation, during which they will not undertake punitive diplomatic actions against Israel in the international arena, he said.

Start Discussions

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said in a statement that “there was progress made, but certain details still need to be worked out.”

“If all goes well,” Rudeina said, Kerry will send invitations “in the next few days” to start discussions in Washington.

Kerry said talks would be attended by Erakat, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s negotiator Yitzhak Molcho.

“I’m sure with all my heart that it is the right thing to do for our future, our security, for the economy and Israel’s values,” Livni said in a posting on Facebook Inc.’s social networking website. “In the negotiating room, we will safeguard the national interests and security of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. To this I am committed.”

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the announcement, and called on “both sides to show leadership, courage, and responsibility to sustain this effort towards achieving the two-state vision,” according to a statement posted on the UN’s website.

‘Very Dangerous’

The Hamas Islam movement that rules the Gaza Strip condemned the move, calling it “very dangerous.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in an e-mailed statement the agreement “contradicts the national consensus that the Palestinians agreed upon.”

“Resuming the talks only serves the occupation and gives it a cover for its settlement expansion,” it said.

Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union, ousted Abbas’s forces from Gaza in 2007, a year after winning parliamentary elections.

The painstaking diplomacy required to reach the threshold of renewed negotiations doesn’t augur well for the prospects of ultimately securing a peace agreement, said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

“Nobody is going to be optimistic that this has a chance of reaching a compromise between the two sides any time soon,” Spyer said by telephone.

Same Results?

Spyer said there’s no indication that the Israelis or Palestinians have changed their core positions, “and since the topography is still the same on the two sides, why wouldn’t it have the same results as last time?”

Hani al-Masri, director of the Badael Palestine Media, Research and Studies Center in Ramallah, said Palestinian leaders will face challenges if they enter into talks without Israeli concessions.

“The resumption of the peace negotiations with Israel amid Israeli obstinacy is political suicide,” al-Masri said in an interview.

Dennis Ross, who was Middle East peace envoy under President Bill Clinton, said the key to further progress will be an environment in which both sides are willing to “stay at the table and negotiate in good faith.”

“There had to be some understandings” exchanged during months of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy for the two sides to even agree to move toward a resumption of talks, Ross said in a telephone interview.

Halt Settlements

After talks between Kerry and Abbas, Palestinian leaders had initially balked on July 18 at starting new negotiations unless Israel met their longstanding demands, including a halt to settlement construction on lands they claim for a future state.

The parties didn’t reach agreement on the central elements of the deal until yesterday afternoon, according to a State Department official who asked not to be named describing diplomatic negotiations.

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down three years ago after Netanyahu declined to extend and expand a 10-month building freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the second-biggest member in the ruling coalition after Netanyahu’s Likud faction, welcomed the deal.

“It is incumbent on us to conduct these negotiations like all negotiations in the Middle East -- with toughness, with caution,” Lapid said in a statement posted today on his Facebook page. “Our marriage with the Palestinians is not a happy one, but we are seeking a fair divorce.”

Nabil Kukali, president of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, said by phone that a majority of Palestinians trust Abbas, support the peace process and “will be happy for the resumption of the peace talks.”

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