Kerry returns to Israel in new push for ‘framework’ peace accord

Secretary lands for talks focusing on security proposal; Israel insists on continued IDF presence in Jordan Valley, which the Palestinians reject

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry arrive at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, December 5, 2013. (photo credit: Emil Salman/POOL/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State John Kerry arrive at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, December 5, 2013. (photo credit: Emil Salman/POOL/FLASH90)

US Secretary of State John Kerry, continuing a furious pace of shuttle diplomacy aimed at securing an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the spring, landed in Israel on Thursday in an effort to get the two sides to forge a “framework agreement,” which would outline particulars of a permanent status accord.

The snowstorm that hit Israel affected Kerry’s schedule, with a planned meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Thursday postponed, and the secretary meeting first with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. He is to meet Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres on Friday.

Palestinian officials briefed on talks last week between Kerry and Abbas said the US is aiming for a framework agreement by the end of January and have asked them to accept a change in the timetable of upcoming releases of Palestinian prisoners by Israel.

Having last week unveiled an American plan for security arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians under a permanent peace deal, Kerry reportedly also intends to set out American proposals in the near future to resolve the other core issues — Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state, and the Palestinian refugees.

Kerry said last week that the two sides were closer to peace “than we have been in years.” And Israel’s chief negotiator said Wednesday there was a real opportunity for progress, and urged more hawkish cabinet colleagues not to block it. “We are facing a window of opportunity for peace and must not miss it,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said in Tel Aviv, and warned “those who sit beside me in the cabinet to know there’s a political price for not deciding in time.”

Since the US-backed talks began in July, negotiators for the two sides have met more than 20 times. But aware that the talks were in danger of breaking down, the Obama administration decided to ratchet up its involvement in an effort to push the sides to make real decisions, according to a report in Haaretz on Thursday.

Kerry and special envoy Martin Indyk intend to assume a much more active role in the negotiations, unnamed officials from both countries were said to have told the paper. Both sides will have “to make decisions” which will determine “if the peace talks will advance or blow up,” a senior Netanyahu aide said.

The so-called framework agreement is intended to be “the basis for the continuing negotiations,” and the Americans are prepared to step in with “their own principles” if they see areas where the two sides can’t agree, another senior Israeli official said.

Kerry, speaking at the Saban Forum in Washington, DC, over the weekend, said that a “full agreement” remained the goal and that a framework agreement “will have to address all the core issues,” including final status issues, and be able to lead to a “full-on peace treaty.” When announcing the resumption of direct talks in late July, Kerry had said he believed the sides could strike a deal within what he set as a nine-month negotiating period.

President Barack Obama, speaking at the same forum, said that a framework agreement would not “address every single detail, but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes [it is] better to move forward than [to] move backwards.”

Kerry, in closed-door talks scheduled with Netanyahu and Abbas on Thursday and Friday, will be following up on elements of his West Bank security plan, drawn up by retired general John Allen, ideas he unveiled on his previous visit to the region just last week, and other points of potential progress.

Israel’s Channel 2 news on Friday night reported that Israel, though it was “not satisfied” with the security proposals, had not rejected them. The Palestinians have heavily criticized the proposals.

Kerry’s latest visit is his ninth trip of the year.

“This is an ongoing discussion,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday, two days after Kerry met with each side’s top negotiators in Washington. “Certainly we expect they will talk about security, as they will discuss other issues.”

Kerry, along with Indyk, met separately and then together on Monday with Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, for about three hours, Psaki said. Livni and Erekat were in Washington for the Saban Forum.

That same day, though, a senior Palestinian official railed against US attempts to broker a broad outline of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, saying Kerry is breaking a promise to try to negotiate a final agreement in the current round of talks.

The Palestinians are concerned that a framework deal will accommodate very specific Israeli security demands while offering only vague promises to the Palestinians, said top Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Kerry and Obama both said over the weekend that the US is pursuing a framework agreement, but they did not provide details. Obama said it was possible to reach such an outline over the next few months.

The State Department stressed that the US remains focused on a final deal and not an interim one, although officials acknowledge there may have to be more than one step to achieve a comprehensive agreement.

Security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestine would be central to such a framework. Kerry has argued that progress in negotiations was only possible if Israeli security concerns are addressed first.

The security proposals presented last week to Abbas and Netanyahu include arrangements for the border between Jordan and a state of Palestine.

US officials have refused to discuss details but Palestinian officials say it would give Israel final say at that border for at least 10 years and would also have a military presence in the strip of land next to it, the West Bank’s Jordan Valley.

Israeli officials have said they fear terrorists and weapons could be smuggled into a future Palestine if Israel gives up control over the West Bank-Jordan border. Abbas has said he is willing to accept an international presence there, but not Israeli forces.

Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett said “no, thanks” Thursday to an agreement which would require Israel to rely on international forces for its security. “Guarantees are words, not actions,” Bennett said on Facebook, and listed several instances where Western agreements have failed in the region, including the continued presence of Hezbollah arms in southern Lebanon, in breach of UN resolution 1701, and a 2006 resolution to stop Iran from building more centrifuges for its nuclear program.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but are willing to accept minor land swaps in drawing the final border to accommodate some of the settlements Israel has built on war-won land.

Netanyahu has refused to commit to what the Palestinians and most of the international community consider a basic ground rule — that border negotiations use the 1967 lines as a starting point.

In all, Israel has agreed to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four stages during the current negotiations, which began in late July and are to conclude in April. Israel has so far released two groups of prisoners.

Kerry wants the last two releases to be combined and be carried out in late January, instead of being done in two installments, the Palestinian officials said.

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