Kerry struggles to broker terms for new peace talks

US secretary meets Netanyahu; Abbas said demanding assurance that Israel prepared to relinquish 100% of West Bank, albeit with land swaps

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

US Secretary of State John Kerry met Monday night with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders, in the wake of talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as he struggled to broker terms for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

While US President Barack Obama, on his visit in March, endorsed Israel’s stance in favor of new talks without preconditions, Abbas is understood to be demanding assurances that Netanyahu is prepared in principle to relinquish 100% of the West Bank, albeit with various one-for-one land swaps to enable Israel to extended sovereignty to include key settlement blocs. Palestinian sources said Abbas wants to see an Israeli map setting out Netanyahu’s territorial positions — something the prime minister refuses to provide, believing it will be seized upon by the Palestinians as the basis for new territorial demands.

Kerry, whose Jerusalem talks Monday were also attended by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, International Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, is to hold one-on-one talks with Netanyahu on Tuesday morning. He is considering formulating some kind of American bridging paper to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table, Israel’s Channel 10 news claimed on Monday night.

Kerry spent the morning of Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day at Yad Vashem, laying down a red, white, and blue wreath at the nation’s official monument for the 6 million Jews murdered during World War II. He also met privately with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Shimon Peres.

After the Peres talks, Kerry said in a statement that he saw “a road ahead” to a two-state solution. “It has been expressed by your leaders and others for years that people believe in the possibility of the two-state solution. I am convinced there is a road forward,” Kerry said. “I would say to everyone that I have no illusions about the difficulties… we’ve seen them. But you have to believe in the possibilities to be able to get there. You and I believe in them and I’m convinced there is a road ahead.”

Peres said the “Iranian regime with its hegemonic ambition is the greatest threat to peace, security and regional stability. Today, of all days, we should condemn that regime, which denies the Holocaust and threatens another one. We have full faith in you, in President Obama and in the global coalition which is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.”

Kerry responded that the Obama administration “understand(s) the threat of Iran. And as the president has said many times, he doesn’t bluff. He is serious and we will stand with Israel against this threat, and with the rest of the world who have underscored that all we are looking for is Iran to live up to its international obligations.”

Kerry said he believed peace was possible. Otherwise, “I wouldn’t be back here for my multiple-whatever-umpteenth trip here as a senator and secretary, and for my third trip to the region as a secretary already,” he told staff at the US Consulate in Jerusalem. “I believe that if we can get on a track where people are working in good faith to address the bottom-line concerns, it is possible to be able to make progress and make peace.”

Palestinian and Arab officials have pointed to one idea in particular: an attempt to revive, with modifications, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that offered a comprehensive peace with Israel for a pullout from territories captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The officials say Kerry is seeking greater Arab-Israeli security commitments and softer language on borders as part of the plan.

But key obstacles remain. Israel has not softened its objections and the Palestinians say they turned down a request from Kerry for the proposed changes.

The Arab initiative, revolutionary when it was introduced by Saudi Arabia’s then-crown prince, King Abdullah, was later endorsed by the 22-member Arab League at a summit in Beirut. However, it was overshadowed by fierce Israeli-Palestinian fighting at the time and never won Israel’s support. The Arab League reendorsed the offer in 2007 and, technically, it remains in effect.

In the 1967 war, Israel took control of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israeli returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982 in the framework of a peace treaty and pulled out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005. Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, and peace talks with Syria over the territory have repeatedly failed.

Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the Palestinian leader called for a solution based on the 1967 lines in his Sunday meeting with Kerry. He did not say whether the Arab peace initiative was discussed, but confirmed Abbas was leaving Monday for talks on the plan at an Arab League meeting in Qatar.

There, a special committee will hold an “urgent meeting” on the subject Monday, said Mohammed Subeih, the Arab League’s undersecretary for Palestinian affairs. Qatar’s prime minister will chair it and the foreign ministers of key countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinians will participate.

Subeih said the committee would form a delegation led by Arab League chief Nabil el-Araby and the Qatari prime minister to travel to Washington in the coming weeks with the goal of drawing a new road map to “end Israeli occupation.”

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Kerry has been floating the Arab initiative as a possible way out of the deadlock.

Officials say Kerry has proposed two small changes to make it more palatable to Israel. He wants language saying the 1967 lines can be modified through mutual agreement and providing stronger security guarantees.

But Erekat said the plan could not be changed. “Kerry asked us to change a few words in the Arab Peace Initiative, but we refused,” he told the Voice of Palestine radio station on Sunday.

Israeli officials refused to comment on the matter.

Israel has rejected a return to the 1967 lines for both security and spiritual reasons, arguing that the frontiers are indefensible and would mean a withdrawal from East Jerusalem, home to the city’s holiest Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious sites. In the past, however, Netanyahu has described the peace initiative as a welcome sign of acceptance from the Arab world, while refusing to accept its conditions.

JTA contributed to this report.

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