As US Secretary of State John Kerry heads back to the Middle East this coming week, conflicting reports emerged at the weekend over the top US diplomat’s capacity to achieve a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, much less the full accord he said he believes possible when launching nine months of peace talks in July.
Israel’s Channel 10 news on Friday night claimed President Barack Obama told a “senior Israeli official” in Washington earlier this month that he was confident a dramatic accord could and would be brokered. “We’re going to bring it home,” the president was said to have promised.
However, Kerry’s diplomatic efforts have been beset by complications and arguments between the sides, according to both Israeli and Palestinian sources, and his latest visit comes amid a series of new disputes.
For one, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is insistently opposed to any ongoing Israeli military presence after Palestinian statehood on the eastern border between the West Bank and Jordan, or anywhere else in a future “Palestine” for that matter. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Kerry’s reported backing, is adamant that the IDF must protect that border for the foreseeable future.
A second argument surrounds prisoner releases. Israel committed to freeing 104 longtime terror convicts, and has already freed 52, but is refusing to include any Israeli-Arab prisoners among them. Kerry has reportedly pushed Netanyahu to show flexibility and, according to one rather improbable report at the weekend, offered to free spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard if the prime minister went along. This report on Israel’s Channel 10 news was unconfirmed, and included the curious claim that Kerry had made the suggestion while stressing that he did have Obama’s approval to do so. The third of four phases of Palestinian prisoner releases is set to take place this coming week. There will be no Israeli-Arabs in this third group, but Abbas is pressing hard for them to be included in the final batch in the coming months.
A third, extremely bitter argument revolves around Netanyahu’s reported intention to announce plans later this week — around the time of the third phase of the prisoner release — to build 1,400 new homes over the pre-1967 Green Line: 800 in West Bank settlement blocs and 600 in Jerusalem. Abbas has protested to the US over the plan, and Palestinian officials are threatening to walk away from the peace talks if it goes ahead. They have further warned that they will instead revert to unilaterally advancing efforts for statehood through the UN and other international forums, and seek international legal sanction against Israel for settlement building, including through the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Abbas is also reportedly opposed to Netanyahu’s demand that he formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and is further said to be demanding Palestinian sovereignty throughout East Jerusalem. Sources on both sides have indicated that the fate of Jerusalem is so bitterly disputed that there is no realistic prospect of an agreement bridging the gaps on that issue in the foreseeable future.
Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari said Friday night that Netanyahu’s new settlement building plan risked providing Abbas with the ideal cause on which to abrogate the peace negotiations and to blame Israel for their failure, secure in the knowledge that Israel’s settlement expansion is opposed by virtually the entire international community, notably including the United States.
In marked contrast to the confident quotation ascribed to Obama, the well-connected Yaari, speaking on Channel 2, said there was “nobody” on the Israeli or Palestinian sides who believes Kerry will be able to broker a peace deal.
On his two previous recent visits, the secretary presented a highly detailed set of security proposals, designed to form the basis of a framework deal, which in turn would justify continued negotiations. The security proposals do not deal with Jerusalem, or with Palestinian demands for a “right of return” for millions of refugees and their descendants — a demand that Israel opposes since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish majority state. But the bitter arguments over the security issue — believed by some in the American team to be one of the core issues that are easiest to solve — underline the complex, uphill nature of Kerry’s peacemaking task.
And that’s without taking into account the recent steady upsurge in Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli targets, and the growing sense that a third intifada may be brewing inside the West Bank’s Palestinian refugee camps.
Yifa Yaakov and The Associated Press contributed to this report.