With Kerry en route, Israelis and Palestinians trade barbs

Officials on both sides insist the ball is in the other’s court, but secretary of state remains upbeat ahead of fifth visit this year

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Just hours before the start of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s fifth visit to Israel in three months, officials on both sides of the conflict blamed each other for the stalled peace talks but promised to approach the prospect of new negotiations seriously.

“The ball is in the other court,” said senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub said in an interview with Israel Radio Thursday morning. “Does Netanyahu really believe in two states for two peoples? Are we going to negotiate to resolve the conflict, or just to manage it? That’s what worries us. Believe me… the Palestinian leadership —  we’re a partner. We have a mandate. We want and believe in [making peace].”

“If we truly see that the other side is going in the direction of two states for two peoples, believe me, we’ll meet them halfway,” he added.

But MK Ofir Akunis, a deputy minister responsible for coordinating between the government and the Knesset, said the prospect of restarting negotiations “depends on one side alone — the Palestinians. For the past three years, it was the Palestinians who preferred to avoid negotiations. The prime minister has already said he’s willing to negotiate in a tent between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

“The question is when the Palestinians will make that decision,” Akunis told Israel Radio. “From our perspective, negotiations can begin yesterday.”

The efforts to renew talks are taking place in the shadow of a Palestinian threat to return to UN bodies in September for further steps toward international recognition without negotiations with Israel.

Palestinians also decried the announcement of the approval of 69 new homes in the Har Homa neighborhood of east Jerusalem, saying it showed Israel’s unwillingness to engage in meaningful peace talks.

Brachie Sprung, spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, said the project in the Har Homa area of the city was approved long ago and that Wednesday’s decision granted final permits for construction to actually begin.

She said a total of 69 homes were to be built, and noted that Wednesday’s decision also approved 22 new homes in Arab neighborhoods of the city.

Still, Kerry sounded decidedly optimistic ahead of his trip about the two sides’ willingness to come to the table. “I believe they believe the peace process is bigger than any one day or one moment, or certainly more important to their countries than some of their current political challenges,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. “I would not be here now if I didn’t have the belief this is possible,” he said.

Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Fatah official Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Speaking Wednesday at a news conference with Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, on a visit to the Persian Gulf kingdom, Kerry warned, “The time is getting near where we need to make some judgments. Last time I was here, I said it’s time for leaders to make some hard decisions,” he said. “That stands. It is time. Why is it urgent? It’s urgent because time is the enemy of a peace process.”

“I don’t want to trap myself or any of the principals in this with arbitrary or somewhat ad hoc time limits,” Kerry said.

But he added: “Long before September we need to be showing some kind of progress in some way.… That’s why I’m here for this visit and I hope it can be productive.”

Kerry is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening in Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Friday, and once more with Netanyahu on Saturday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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