WASHINGTON, DC — Prior to the announcement of this week’s renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, US President Barack Obama made a personal phone call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a senior White House official revealed Tuesday evening. During the closed-door briefing, two senior administration officials also said that they expected pressure on Israel at the United Nations to be somewhat reduced by the resumption of talks.
“The Palestinians throughout the course of this year have been making clear that if they couldn’t see progress on the peace front, that their intention would be to seek other elevations of their status, whether at the UN or other international organizations, which is not something that the United States supports, but is something that could have created a significant amount of friction with Israel and really interrupted the progress we want to see in the region,” one of the two officials said Tuesday.
“So it’s no secret that one of the motivating factors, I think for everybody, was to avoid that sort of train wreck that would have happened, that might have happened, if we weren’t able to get negotiations started,” the official added.
The United Nations General Assembly, an annual meeting that in recent years has seen its fair share of anti-Israel efforts by Palestinians and their supporters, is scheduled to be held in mid-September.
Speaking under the condition of anonymity, one of the two, a senior State Department official, revealed that Kerry had placed as a precondition for resumption of talks that the negotiations would aim at reaching a final status agreement – and not “talks for the sake of talks.” In advance of those talks, the White House official said, Obama called Netanyahu mere days before Kerry announced the resumption of negotiations.
The second official, a senior official at the White House, said Obama and his advisers “were impressed with the outlook and the atmosphere” of the opening round of peace talks, held over the past two days in Washington DC. “It really does appear that these negotiators are coming to it with the seriousness that will be necessary to tackle the challenges ahead,” the official said.
Also speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior State Department official said that US mediators had witnessed “final status negotiations, direct final status negotiations between the parties today.”
The Israelis and the Palestinians, the State Department official said, devoted a “fair amount” of time to discussing whether or not to prioritize specific topics for negotiation or to put all of them on the table concurrently.
“There are certain modalities that need to be worked out between the parties,” the official added. “We agreed on the next meeting, which will take place in the region within the next two weeks,” the official added.
The official said that the message that Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to convey is that he understands that the talks are “going to be very, very hard, and it’s going to take some very, very tough choices by the leaders if we’re going to get where we were all trying to get to.”
Kerry, the official said, was “very encouraged by the decisions that Prime Minister Netanyahu took in the last days to – agreement to release prisoners, a tough, tough fight he had with his cabinet.” He said that the prime minister had sent a message to Israelis “making the case for peace” and described Netanyahu’s actions as “extraordinarily encouraging signs as far as we were concerned, and I think really took some courage and some leadership from Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
The State Department official added that “by the same token, President Abbas made a very difficult decision,” but did not detail what exactly the decision was.
Addressing the brief meeting held Tuesday among Obama and the top negotiators for both sides, the senior White House official said that Obama “is fully aware, and made clear to the parties, that there is an awful lot of difficult work to do in the days and months ahead” and that “he personally is ready to engage to support the process.”
The official said that following the president’s March trip to the Middle East, including Israel, “he came away from that trip convinced that peace was both necessary and possible, and so he asked the secretary to follow up and to do everything he could to get a negotiation started again after quite a long hiatus.”
The two officials also revealed that in the coming weeks, the public will hear about “steps forward on the economic front”, most likely framed around the Quartet’s economic initiative. The economic development, the official later added, will not come through US appropriation of money for assistance to the Palestinian Authority, but rather “to leverage the private sector into making very, very significant investments into the West Bank and also to Gaza Strip.”
The White House official said that the administration perceived a new opportunity for talks due to changing conditions in the Middle East, and particularly concerning Israel. The official enumerated a list of changes that impacted the immediacy for the renewed talks, including the recent elections in both Israel and the United States, “a new dynamic vis-à-vis the United Nations”, and the impact of the Arab Spring, particularly in Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Syria.