US Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday evening that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to resume peace talks without preconditions, after a three-year breakdown in negotiations.
“We have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming negotiations. This is a significant and welcome step forward,” said Kerry at a press conference in Amman.
“We know that challenges lay ahead. Both sides understand that the difficult road ahead is worth traveling. They have courageously recognized that in order to live side by side, they must begin by sitting together in direct talks,” said Kerry.
“I look forward to seeing my friends from this region in Washington next week” or shortly after, he added.
Kerry specified that top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho would come to the US to resume the negotiations.
Kerry was back in Amman Friday evening after meeting earlier with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where he was a guest at the Iftar meal with the Palestinian leader.
“Mr. President, you should look happy,” a cheerful-looking Kerry said to Abbas in front of reporters as they sat before the closed-door talks began.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it would not immediately comment on Kerry’s announcement. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commended Kerry’s efforts and the decision by the parties to return to the negotiating table, pledged UN support, and called on both sides “to show leadership, courage, and responsibility to sustain this effort towards achieving the two-state vision,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the announcement saying Netanyahu and Abbas “demonstrated courage in reaching this point.”
“Of course there are difficult negotiations ahead and difficult decisions to take. The European Union will make every effort to ensure that negotiations succeed,” Ashton said.
A Palestinian official said Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements. He claimed Kerry would endorse the pre-1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and that the secretary assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men that Israel convicted of terrorist crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Israel has balked at freeing these prisoners in the past because many were convicted in deadly attacks.
There was no formal confirmation of these elements of the Kerry framework.
Kerry had stepped up his drive Friday to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, facing Palestinian reluctance over his formula for resuming negotiations.
Kerry held more than 90 minutes of talks Friday morning with chief Palestinian negotiator Erekat, a US official said.
At a stormy late-night meeting of their leadership Thursday, Palestinians had balked at dropping a main condition for talks with the Israelis. They demand a guarantee that negotiations on borders between a Palestinian state and Israel would be based on the ceasefire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Still, a Palestinian official had told The Times of Israel late Thursday that the Palestinians would come back to the talks if the US invitation to the negotiations specified that the goal was a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines.
Israel had rejected preconditions on the talks, and the split casts a cloud of uncertainty over months of US mediation efforts.
Hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks, President Barack Obama asked Netanyahu to work with Kerry “to resume negotiations with Palestinians as soon as possible,” according to a statement released by the White House late Thursday.
Previous Israeli governments twice negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines, but no peace accord was reached. Besides disagreeing over how much land to trade and where, the two sides hit logjams on other key issues, including dividing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Netanyahu has given lukewarm endorsement to the idea of a Palestinian state but has not delineated his vision of boundaries, while demanding that the Palestinian recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Palestinians reject that, concerned that it would undermine their claims that millions of refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their original homes, lost in the 1948-49 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Israel has rejected that claim outright.
After their late-night meeting Thursday, the Palestinians did not bring up their often-repeated demand that Israel stop building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before talks could resume. One official said that if Israel accepts the 1967 lines as a basis, that would make most of the settlements illegitimate.
An Arab League decision Wednesday to endorse Kerry’s proposal raised speculation that the Palestinians may agree. Abbas traditionally has sought the blessing of his Arab brethren before making any major diplomatic initiative.
Ahmed Majdalani, a Palestinian leader, said Kerry envisaged six to nine months of talks focused on border and security issues.
He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations. It was not clear whether Israel would accept any reference to the 1967 lines.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that has run the Gaza Strip since it ousted Abbas’s Fatah party after the 2006 elections, rejected Kerry’s announcement, saying it “considers the Palestinian Authority’s return to negotiations with the occupation to be at odds with the national consensus.” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP that Abbas had no right to negotiate on the Palestinian people’s behalf.