US Secretary of State John Kerry is bidding to broker a series of at least three meetings between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas at the start of new direct peace talks, and is seeking guarantees from the Israelis and the Palestinians that a new peace effort will not quickly fall apart, as happened with the last resumption of negotiations in 2010, an Israeli TV report said Friday night.
Kerry, currently on his fifth Middle East visit in three months, is shuttling between Amman and Jerusalem, meeting Abbas and Netanyahu in his latest effort to restart negotiations. No concrete progress has been reported from his efforts.
The Channel 10 report said Netanyahu supports the idea of face-to-face meetings, and wants Kerry present for at least two such sessions with Abbas, so that it will be clear to the Americans who is to blame if renewed talks fail.
The TV report quoted State Department sources expressing optimism over the prospect of resuming talks “before September,” and of making substantive progress in such negotiations.
Such optimism, which the report dryly described as “very Kerry-esque,” does not sit easily with the known positions of the two sides. Abbas has demanded a settlement freeze and prior agreement to talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, as preconditions for new talks. He also wants the release of long-time Palestinian security prisoners. Netanyahu rejects all preconditions, but says he would discuss all issues once talks begin.
Earlier in the week, an unnamed senior minister was quoted by Haaretz as saying Netanyahu was prepared to relinquish most of the West Bank in an accord. It was not clear whether this anonymous leak would be sufficient to meet Abbas’s demands for talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, the Channel 10 report noted.
Most Israeli analysts see little prospect of substantive progress even if talks do restart, because the maximum that Netanyahu is prepared to give Abbas — on issues such as territory and refugee claims — is less than the minimum Abbas would accept.
Abbas is telling all diplomatic visitors to Ramallah these days that, with the Oslo accords having failed, the Palestinian Authority now has no real reason to exist, Channel 2 reported on Friday. The unspoken threat, this report said, is that Abbas will allow the PA to collapse, and let Israel deal with the consequences.
Channel 2 also claimed, incidentally, that Netanyahu and Abbas are in frequent, regular contact by telephone.
Other analysts predict that Abbas, even if persuaded by the US to return to the negotiating table, will do so only so that he can quickly abandon the talks, blame Israel for their failure, and seek UN Security Council recognition for Palestine — a gambit he has pursued without success in the past.
The last Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in late 2010, when Abbas briefly entered negotiations with Netanyahu at the tail-end of a 10-month settlement freeze that Netanyahu did not extend.
On Friday night, President Shimon Peres hosted Kerry for Shabbat dinner, and praised the secretary’s efforts to revive the talks. “The State of Israel appreciates your efforts to renew negotiations. Know that the whole country is behind you,” Peres was quoted by Ynet as telling Kerry.
“The yearning for peace crosses party lines… There is a clear majority that backs the principle of a two-state solution,” added the president.
Earlier, the secretary of state met for a second time in less than 24 hours with Netanyahu, following his return from a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Abbas in Amman, Kerry’s base of operations during his stop in the Middle East.
His Friday evening talks with Netanyahu were “detailed and significant,” according to a State Department source quoted by AFP.
Kerry was set to travel to Jordan once again late Friday and hold a press conference Saturday, Army Radio reported, after which he would return to Israel for a third time.
On Thursday night, Kerry held a four-hour dinner meeting with Netanyahu that stretched into Friday morning.
Earlier Friday, the head of Israel’s opposition said she will back Netanyahu in the event that US-led efforts to broker new peace talks with the Palestinians bear fruit, despite their bitter differences on economic and social policy.
“The Israeli government must hold a dialogue that’s driven by optimism, rather than become addicted to the traditional mantra that there’s no chance,” Labor Party chief MK Shelly Yachimovich said.
Yachimovich’s guarantee of a parliamentary “safety net” is meant as an assurance that despite the proliferation in Netanyahu‘s government of hardliners who oppose a two-state solution, any peace initiative presented by the prime minister will gain the Knesset’s approval.
“The Zionist objective is a Jewish and democratic nation-state, which is why we reject the binational state that may come as a result of ongoing stagnation” in peace talks, Yachimovich was quoted by Channel 10 as saying.
Yachimovich’s supportive tone stood in stark contrast to that of the further-left Meretz party whose leader, MK Zahava Gal-on, on Friday said that a decision on the eve of Kerry’s visit to push forward with the construction of 69 new Jewish homes in an East Jerusalem neighborhood was tantamount to “giving the Americans the finger.”
US State Department officials say that while there are no scheduled plans for a three-way summit with Netanyahu and Abbas during Kerry’s trip, they are confident that both sides are open to negotiations, or at least sitting down together at the same table to restart talks that broke down in 2010.
Kerry, they say, will continue to try to find common ground between the two sides that would lead to a relaunching of peace talks. On this trip, they added, Kerry is trying to pin down precisely what conditions Abbas and Netanyahu have for restarting talks and perhaps discuss confidence-building measures.
Beyond that, Kerry wants to talk about the positive outcomes, such as enhanced economic growth, of a two-state solution. But at the same time, the secretary, who has long-time relationships with officials from both sides, will remind them of what’s at stake if the conflict is left unresolved, they said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.