Though he failed to bring the sides to the peace table after a long weekend of shuttle diplomacy, US Secretary of State John Kerry ended his latest Middle East trip Sunday asserting he had “considerably” narrowed the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians and that the start of final-status negotiations could be “within reach.”
Kerry delivered his assessment at Ben Gurion Airport after four days of shuttling between the sides in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman on his fifth visit since taking office in February. He said both sides wanted him to come back soon, and that he would do so.
Kerry said he was impressed with the “serious commitment” by both sides to resume the talks, which were last held in 2010.
“We started with huge gaps and we have narrowed them. There are a few details, but I am sure we are on the right track. The sides believe it is possible. In the end of the day, it is up to them… The effort put in by both sides indicated to me that they are serious,” said Kerry.
“We have no time. Time threatens the situation on the ground. It enables distrust and hostile elements interfere. Ultimately, it allows cynicism to seep in and the window of opportunity to close,” the secretary of state added.
Kerry said that the ultimate goal was achieving a permanent peace based on the principle of two states for two peoples. “Most Israelis and Palestinians want this. It will fortify Israel’s security and its future as the Jewish state and will enable the Palestinians to achieve their ambitions,” he said. “Getting the process started is hardest. Once you get started, you can bore down into the details.”
Kerry refused to set out a specific deadline for the resumption of talks but said, “If it takes another week or two, it’s nothing compared to what we’re trying to achieve. Both sides want me to return and I will do so.”
Kerry noted that both sides were committed to keeping the details of the talks secret, no matter how much that might frustrate the media and how many inaccuracies get reported.
Kerry said he would leave a team of experts in the region to continue efforts. He planned on returning soon, he said.
Kerry’s efforts are understood to have been stymied by disputes between the sides over the modalities of talks. Abbas has demanded a settlement freeze, an Israeli commitment to talks on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, and the release of over 100 long-time Palestinian prisoners, as preconditions for talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out any preconditions, while saying he would discuss all issues at the talks. Kerry tried hard to shift both sides, evidently without sufficient success to yield new talks or an anticipated four-way summit of Israeli, Palestinian, American and Jordanian leaders.
Some reports suggested that Netanyahu was ready for a phased program of prisoner releases, and that he would have approved Kerry reading a statement declaring that talks would be held on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, but that these terms were not acceptable to Abbas. There was no confirmation of these reports.
Kerry’s final session on the visit, which began last Thursday, was a two-hour meeting with Abbas in Ramallah. That followed a six-hour meeting with Netanyahu that extended long into Saturday night.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after the Ramallah meeting that there had been “no breakthrough” that would lead to the resumption of negotiations.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting that “Israel is ready to enter negotiations without delay and without preconditions” and added that it was “essential” that any peace agreement be put forth in a general referendum to the Israeli people.
He said Israel was not putting up any impediments to new talks, but he stressed: “We will not compromise on security and there will be no agreement that will endanger Israelis’ security.”