US Secretary of State John Kerry, who left Israel on Monday after a long weekend of shuttle diplomacy, is set to return as early as next week in his relentless bid to broker a “framework” agreement for Israel-Palestinian peace.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Likud Knesset faction Monday that “there is no American framework document yet,” and that even if it could be agreed, it would not be binding on the sides, Channel 2 reported. He also assured the Likud MKs that he had not given in to American pressure for more flexible positions regarding the fate of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, and said he was only too aware of the consequences of dismantling settlements in the absence of a viable peace accord, the report said.
Referring to Israel’s dismantling of its settlements in Gaza and unilateral withdrawal from the Strip in 2005 — which was followed by a Hamas takeover, rocket fire into Israel and two small wars — Netanyahu reportedly told his colleagues, “We saw what happened when we closed our eyes and dismantled settlements. In the best case we get peace; in the worst, we get Afghanistan.”
The report said Netanyahu did not rule out dismantling settlements at any price. Another report on Channel 10 said the prime minister had told the Likud meeting he did not intend to dismantle settlements, but did not indicate whether Netanyahu was referring to the short term or further down the line.
Kerry has paid 10 trips to the region this year, initially expressing confidence that a permanent peace accord, providing for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, could be wrapped up by the end of April. More recently, though, evidently realizing that this was a tall order, he has been pushing the less ambitious “framework” idea.
Netanyahu on Monday, however, reportedly told the Likud that even the framework plan, which Kerry has not yet been able to finalize, would not be binding to the two sides. The prime minister also said there would be elements in the non-binding paper that he and his party colleagues wouldn’t like, and elements that the Palestinians wouldn’t like.
The two sides are believed to be at odds over almost every aspect of the core issues involved in a two-state accord. Kerry has been reportedly pushing Netanyahu to agree to at least keep talking on the basis of a Palestinian state to be established along the pre-1967 lines, with land-swap adjustments, and urging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Beyond these points, the two sides are said to disagree over security arrangements, border demarcations, the fate of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugee demands under a permanent deal. There have also been disputes over who will be released in a final phase of prisoner releases by Israel of terror convicts in the coming months. And it is unclear whether the Palestinians are prepared to extend the current talks beyond their scheduled expiry date in late April.
The pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi on Monday quoted Palestinian sources as saying that Abbas was inclining to accept a Kerry proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian-international force to secure the eastern border between the West Bank and Jordan even after Palestinian statehood, where previously Abbas had ruled out any Israeli presence. But the claim was unconfirmed, and it is entirely unclear whether it would be palatable to Netanyahu.
A Maariv report Monday said Netanyahu had rejected a Kerry proposal for a limited number of Palestinian refugees to enter Israel. The paper also claimed Netanyahu was ready to freeze settlement expansion in order to keep the talks going to the end of the year. Netanyahu is expected to announce 1,400 new building starts over the Green Line in the near future, and the government on Sunday agreed another stage of the approval process for more than 100 homes in the Ofra and Karnei Shomron settlements.
If Kerry failed to close the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians, he did say he had won backing during this visit from Jordan and Saudi Arabia after lightning visits to both countries on Sunday. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, on Monday asserted that a full peace deal could be done now, and derided any prime minister who didn’t seize the opportunity as an “idiot.”
Netanyahu’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid, from the centrist Yesh Atid, also said Monday there was “a real opportunity” for an accommodation with the Palestinians, “and it’s closer than appearances would indicate.”
Before leaving on Monday, Kerry met with Tony Blair, who serves as special envoy for the Quartet of Regional Peacemakers comprising the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Russia. The top US diplomat also convened with the leader of the Israeli opposition, Labor MK Isaac Herzog.
Herzog said he assured Kerry that the majority of the Knesset, including the opposition, supports reaching a diplomatic solution but that ensuring security and the rejection of the Palestinian right of return were central issues. ”I stressed that we see the utmost importance in the security arrangements that will ensure Israel’s ability to protect her citizens and the prevention of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory,” Herzog said.
One State Department official, quoted by AFP, told reporters on Kerry’s plane home Monday, “There’s a lot of work that needs to happen, a lot of tough decisions that need to be made. At some point there will a document with the ideas from both parties, but we’re not going to make a prediction of when that will be.”