The center of Israeli political activity will shift westward to Rome Sunday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli officials attempt to finalize a long-sought deal with Turkey to reestablish warm ties.
Kerry left Washington on Saturday to meet Netanyahu, ahead of the publication of an international report expected to criticize Israeli settlement building.
Kerry was flying to Rome to meet the Israeli leader on Sunday and Monday. Some reports have suggested he will use the meeting to assess the possibility of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But US officials have been careful not to predict any breakthroughs and the meeting is likely to touch on the imminent release of a report by the Quartet, which is seeking to foster a “two-state” solution to the conflict.
Netanyahu is expected to fly to Rome following a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday morning, where he will reportedly make a last ditch effort to convince Kerry to soften the Quartet report’s findings on Israel.
This diplomatic group — the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia — is concerned that Palestinian violence and Israel’s building on in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is pushing the prospect of peace further away.
This week, ahead of Kerry’s trip, his spokesman John Kirby said the Quartet statement would “largely” reflect the Quartet’s previous statement in September last year.
That report cited Israel’s “ongoing settlement activity and the high rate of demolition of Palestinian structures” as “dangerously imperiling the viability” of a two-state deal.
Kirby said the Quartet’s report “will include recommendations that will help inform international discussions on the best way to advance a two-state solution.”
He added that Kerry and Netanyahu would also discuss other bilateral issues.
“There are plenty of issues coming up that merit Israel and the United States’s discussion,” he said.
Washington, the traditional mediator in Middle East peace efforts, has not taken the lead in recent months, concerned that the situation is not promising and that another round of failed talks would only further embitter both parties.
But France has launched a diplomatic initiative to build international pressure on both sides.
The United States gave the French move a cool reception, but Kerry attended its inaugural meeting in Paris and has called on both sides to take “affirmative steps” to calm tempers and preserve the possibility of peace.
Israel-Turkey agreement likely Sunday
Rome will also see Israeli and Turkish negotiators meeting Sunday to reach an agreement on normalizing relations after the two countries fell out six years ago, sources said.
Previously, the discussions had been expected to take place in Turkey.
If an agreement is reached, it would go before Israel’s security cabinet for approval on Wednesday, according to media reports and an Israeli official who requested anonymity.
Analysts say it is very likely that an agreement will be concluded on Sunday.
Once tight relations between Israel and key NATO member Turkey were significantly downgraded amid a series of spats, including an Israeli commando raid on a six-ship flotilla in May 2010 as it tried to run the blockade on Gaza, which sparked a melee that left 10 Turks dead.
Two of Turkey’s key conditions for normalization — an apology and compensation — have largely been met, leaving its third demand, that Israel lift its blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, as the main obstacle.
According to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the two sides have reached a compromise whereby Turkey would send aid for Palestinians via the Israeli port of Ashdod rather than directly to Gaza.
The deal reportedly does not include the return of Israelis held in Gaza, including two soldiers determined to have been killed in combat there. On Saturday, the families of the soldiers said they would stage a protest if the bodies were not returned as part of the deal.
According to Israeli news site Ynet, the agreement also includes a deal for a natural gas pipeline for Israel to supply Turkey with natural gas, resumed defense and intelligence cooperation and a Turkish commitment to drop legal action against Israeli officers over the flotilla affair.
Ankara would also agree to stop allowing terror group Hamas to direct attacks against Israel from Turkish soil, according to the report.