Kerry Seeks Blueprint to Sustain Israeli-Palestinian Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to the Middle East today, aiming to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree on the contours of a final peace accord to create momentum for their troubled negotiations.

The framework agreement Kerry seeks would establish broad outlines for resolving issues at the heart of the conflict, such as the final borders of Jewish and Palestinian states, conflicting claims to Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees, while reserving details of implementation for a final treaty, a senior U.S. State Department official said. The official spoke to reporters this week on condition of anonymity because peace efforts are confidential.

Kerry won’t present Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with a U.S. plan that would be imposed on the parties, the official said. Instead, he will offer proposals to bridge gaps that emerged during about 20 Israeli-Palestinian negotiating sessions, and see whether these ideas will allow the formulation of a blueprint for a final deal, the official said. Kerry will be shuttling between Abbas and Netanyahu during his visit.

“The problem with a framework agreement is that in order to reach a deal on it now, it has to be vague enough so both sides can live with it,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Israeli deputy foreign minister and a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute of National Security Studies. “But if Kerry is serious about achieving something more substantial than a photo-op, he has to demand from both sides an agreement that isn’t so vague it’s virtually meaningless.”

Talks Strained

The U.S. brokered-negotiations, begun in late July and set to run nine months, have been strained in recent weeks by escalating Palestinian violence and moves to cement Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Palestinians see the West Bank as the heart of a future state that would include east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Israel captured all three areas in 1967 and withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Kerry has asked the sides not to discuss the substance of the talks, and they have largely complied. One disagreement that has emerged publicly regards future security arrangements in West Bank portions of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu has said Israel must maintain a security presence in the territory even after it is handed over to the Palestinians, to safeguard the Jewish state’s eastern frontier. Palestinian officials say an Israeli military presence there would violate the sovereignty of the state they want to found.

Shared Vision

The U.S. official said that while the Americans haven’t given up hope of reaching a final deal by late April, a framework accord would offer for the first time a shared vision of peace after 20 years of on-again, off-again talks. No breakthrough is expected on this trip and no deadline for reaching a framework agreement will be set, the official said. An agreed framework may not be made public, the official added.

Kerry arrives just days after Israel freed a third group of Palestinian prisoners, most convicted of fatal attacks on Israelis, under a commitment it made before the talks began. Netanyahu criticized the Palestinian Authority for celebrating the prisoners’ return, saying “murderers are not heroes” and “this is not how one educates for peace.”

Annexation Bill

The release was preceded by Israel’s disclosure that it plans to build hundreds of new settler homes. A group of cabinet ministers also pushed ahead a bill to annex West Bank portions of the Jordan Valley to block any territorial concessions there.

Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar held a groundbreaking ceremony today for a new neighborhood to be built in the Jordan Valley settlement of Gittit. “If we do not take a stand on this issue, the state will not have strategic depth,” Sa’ar said in comments broadcast on Army Radio.

The Palestinian Authority moved its cabinet meeting to the Jordan Valley this week to signify its opposition to the proposed legislation.

“The talks failed,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Voice of Palestine Radio this week. “We don’t need nine months to pass judgment on the negotiations. Israel has caused them to fail.”

The Ha’aretz newspaper reported today that Netanyahu has asked to delay publication of bids to build 1,400 new settler homes until after the Kerry visit. Government spokesman Mark Regev had no comment on the report.

Pre-War Borders

As Kerry seeks compromise on both sides, the State Department official suggested the U.S. was open to the Palestinian demand that border negotiations be based on the frontiers Israel held before the 1967 war. The U.S. thinks such a formulation, including territorial swaps that account for Israeli settlement construction, could be the basis of a border deal, the official said. Netanyahu has rejected any explicit reference to the 1967 lines, saying it would create indefensible borders.

“Peace will only come when Israel’s security and settlement interests are guaranteed,” he said Dec. 31, according to a text message from his office.

Netanyahu also insists the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, forsaking future demands on its territory. Palestinians have refused, saying that would be tantamount to denying their historical homeland and surrendering rights of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from homes in present-day Israel during the fighting around its 1948 founding.

It will be no real achievement if Kerry manages to craft a framework agreement that simply provides an excuse to keep the talks going if it doesn’t directly address some of these core issues, said Yoram Meital, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba. “It would be like putting more gasoline in a car that only runs on neutral.”

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