Israel and the Palestinians will have to face tough choices in the coming weeks, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Jerusalem on Thursday as he arrived in the region for his 10th round of shuttle diplomacy.
Speaking with Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference before the first of several planned meetings between the two, Kerry said leaders on both sides of the table already knew what would be included in a US-drafted framework agreement, but added that an agreement was “not mission impossible.”
“We know what the issues are and the parameters,” he said. “The time is soon arriving when leaders will have to make tough decisions.”
Kerry said that he would “work with both sides to narrow differences on a framework that will set guidelines for negotiations.”
However, Netanyahu, recalling Palestinian celebrations over a prisoner release earlier in the week, said he was skeptical over Ramallah’s commitment to peace.
“I know that you are committed to peace; I know that I am committed to peace; but, unfortunately, given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders, there’s growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace,” Netanyahu said.
Kerry landed in Israel on Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to meet with Abbas Friday to try to get the sides to agree to a framework agreement that will address the outlines of a final peace deal.
A framework agreement would cover “all core issues” based on points already stated by both sides, the secretary of state noted, and said that his role was “not to impose US ideas, but to facilitate the ideas of both parties.”
He and Netanyahu held a six hour meeting on Thursday which ran late into the night, and he’s slated to meet with his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Friday as well.
The two were joined intermittently by top Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. According to Israel Radio, Kerry and Netanyahu were expected to reconvene two more times over the course of the weekend.
Kerry, making his tenth visit to the region this year, also praised Israel for the “difficult decision” Monday night to release the 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners, the third group of four as stipulated by the agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the US-brokered talks.
“Every time I visit, Israel’s security concerns are uppermost in my mind. I understand the nature of the security threat here. I know what it’s like to live in Israel, with once upon a time Katyusha rockets coming to Kiryat Shmona, or rockets from Gaza coming in Sderot,” said Kerry.
However, Netanyahu criticized Abbas for embracing terrorists as heroes when he welcomed the released prisoners. “Instead of preparing their people to peace, Palestinian leaders are inciting their people against Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Peace means recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Abbas must reject terror and embrace peace.”
“To glorify the murders of innocent women and men as heroes is an outrage,” the prime minister said. “How can President Abbas say that he stands against terrorism, when he embraces the perpetrators of terrorism and glorifies them as heroes?”
The Israeli people are prepared for a “historic peace,” Netanyahu said, but “we must have a Palestinian partner who’s equally prepared to make this peace. Peace means ending incitement; it means fighting terrorism and condemning terrorism; it means recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people; it means meeting Israel’s security needs; and it means being prepared to truly end the conflict once and for all.”
A US State Department official said that while Kerry doesn’t expect a “big breakthrough” during his trip, he is likely to present both sides with the framework agreement touching on all core issues, including the borders between Israel and a future Palestine; security; Palestinian refugees; and conflicting claims to the holy city of Jerusalem.
The official also said if the parties agreed on a framework for negotiating a final peace deal, it might not be made public to avoid exposing the leaders to political pressures at home.
Netanyahu is likely to be asked to accept — with some modifications — the lines that existed in 1967 before Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Abbas fears being asked to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and give up the so-called “right of return” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the war over Israel’s creation in 1948.
Netanyahu is reported ready to continue talks on the basis of a framework deal, even if it references a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines, provided he is not required to sign it.
A framework accord might not even be enough to ensure a subsequent face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas, an indication of the wide gaps that remain.
Kerry’s security proposals, which reportedly provide for the presence of IDF troops to secure the West Bank-Jordan border after a permanent deal is reached, have reportedly been rejected by Abbas. The sides also differ widely on possible land-swap arrangements, and are reportedly deadlocked on some core issues, including Jerusalem and the refugees.
Kerry’s arrival comes amid a row over reported plans by Netanyahu to authorize construction of 1,400 homes over the pre-1967 Green Line — 600 in Jerusalem, and 800 in West Bank settlements. Abbas has urged the US to block the plans and on Tuesday threatened to rally the UN against Israel’s settlements, which he termed a “cancer.”
Israeli officials decided to delay announcing planned new settlement construction while Kerry is visiting the region, saying it was inappropriate to make the announcement during the American diplomat’s stay.
Negotiators from both sides have had some 20 rounds of talks since summer. Just four months remain until a US-set target date for a final agreement.
Yifa Yaakov and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.