While US President Barack Obama’s visit to the region has been described as a listening tour, for Secretary of State John Kerry the visit is all business. According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth Tuesday, Kerry is in the region to kick-start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, using the 2002 Saudi Peace initiative as the starting point of future talks.
Kerry’s arrival in Israel on Tuesday afternoon, a day before Obama lands, was somewhat unusual in that his staff did not reveal his schedule to the media. At a press conference in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland only said Kerry would “have a meeting or two, in preparation for the president’s arrival” and that the “schedule was being worked out.”
According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Kerry intends to put the Arab League peace initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, back on the table for Israel and the PA. According to that plan, Arab nations would recognize and make peace with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 armistice lines, an agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, and acceptance of the formation of an independent Palestinian state.
Then a crown prince, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, when he first proposed the initiative, acknowledged that it was to only serve as a basis, not a dictate, and all of its points were open to negotiation. Kerry too has warned the Palestinian leadership in the past that it would have to make concessions on some of the clauses laid down by the peace plan.
Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who was the foreign policy adviser of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, said that although the government rejected the offer, it did make efforts to further explore the idea.
“He sent me to find out if the Saudis are serious,” Ayalon told reporters recently, adding that he tried to arrange, through middlemen, a meeting with Adel Jubeir, who at the time was an adviser to Abdullah. “We almost met in a restaurant in Washington and in the last-minute he didn’t want to meet,” Ayalon recalled. “We promised it would be under the radar, it would be very low-profile,” but the Saudis reneged on the scheduled meeting.
Ayalon said the government didn’t like about the proposal that it was on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, with no room for discussions, but indicated that it could serve “as a basis for negotiations in the future, when conditions are much clearer here.”
Sources close to Obama said his first priority in the visit will be resetting his oft-troubled relationship with Netanyahu and evaluating the new coalition government Netanyahu laboriously cobbled together.
The president also will look to boost his appeal to a skeptical Israeli public, as well as to frustrated Palestinians. “This is not about accomplishing anything now. This is what I call a down payment trip,” said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Mideast peace to six secretaries of state who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Kerry will accompany Obama on his visit from Wednesday and depart with him to Jordan on Friday, but will return to Israel on Saturday night for an additional meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kerry and Obama are scheduled to meet with Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday morning.
Maariv reported on Wednesday that Kerry will try to arrange a three-way meeting between Obama, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israelis and Palestinians have not held direct talks since the fall of 2010, when the talks broke down after Israel refused to agree to the Palestinian Authority’s demands that it extend a settlement construction freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a pre-condition for talks.
Last November, the PA gained nonmember observer state status at the UN, despite objections by the US and Israel. Since the UN vote, Israel announced a series of construction plans for areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, including in the controversial E1 corridor, located between Maaleh Adumin in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel halt settlement construction as a pre-condition for returning to the negotiating table. Israel, for its part, maintains that there shouldn’t be pre-conditions for peace talks since all final status issues — security, Jerusalem, refugees, and borders — will be agreed upon during the course of negotiations.
A source close to Abbas told Israel Radio Tuesday morning that the Palestinian president will ask Obama to pressure Israel into making gestures of goodwill to the PA .Among the requested gestures will be the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, the transfer of additional land to PA control and the handing over of armored vehicles donated to the PA by Russia.
Netanyahu reportedly was already considering offering a package of goodwill gestures to coincide with the presidential visit. A Maariv report earlier this month said that Israel’s defense establishment has drawn up a package that includes the transfer of authority over two access roads — one to the new Palestinian city Rawabi, and the other to the West Bank city of Tulkarem — to full Palestinian control, the approval of building plans for 10 Palestinian villages currently deemed illegal and under threat of being demolished, the release of many of the 123 Fatah prisoners arrested by Israel before the Oslo peace talks and the transfer of small arms ammunition to Palestinian security forces.
However, Palestinian officials have expressed little, if any confidence in the immediate future of revived peace talks. Nabil Shaath, a PA official and former member of the Palestinian negotiation team, noted in an interview to Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam, that the new Israeli government, sworn in on Monday, contains more settlers and fewer religious legislators than previous administrations. The settlers, he said, are more extremist and more dangerous than the religious MKs.
Top Palestinan negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday night that there was no need for Obama to bring a new initiative to the region, nor was it necessary to arrange a summit meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas. “The only thing needed is to set a clear timetable for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders,” Erekat told al-Arabiya.
Erekat was quoted on Wednesday by Israel Radio saying that the new Israeli government, sworn in on Monday, was formed in order to destroy the principle of a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict.
Raphael Ahren and AP contributed to this report.