Kerry: Talks ‘constructive,’ economic projects to aid Palestinians

Kerry: Talks ‘constructive,’ economic projects to aid Palestinians

Top US diplomat stresses peace progress is ‘best done quietly,’ not in piecemeal statements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem on April 8, 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday wrapped up three days of high-level Mideast diplomacy on a positive note, saying he held “very constructive talks” with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and promising to press on in an effort to break a four-year deadlock over resuming direct negotiations.

Talking to reporters after holding private talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry said the parties all committed to a process that could “create the conditions for peace” so that they can return to the negotiating table.

Kerry stressed that he was being mindful of the “good intentions and failed efforts” that have dogged Middle East diplomacy in the past and said he’d focus on “laying the groundwork so we can bring people to the table with a clear understanding of what we’re beginning on, what we’re trying to do, and where we’re trying to end up.”

Kerry, who has committed the US to a multi-month diplomatic effort, stressed that he was being intentionally coy on the specifics of his new peace push.

Netanyahu was willing to allow new economic projects in the Palestinian Authority, Kerry said. However, “it’s not going to be done — and shouldn’t be done — in piecemeal public releases,” he stated. “It’s best done quietly.”

Netanyahu told reporters earlier Tuesday that he wanted peace. He welcomed proposals for economic assistance to the Palestinians, but said issues of recognition and security remain “foremost in our minds.

“I’m determined not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians, but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all,” he told reporters before meeting Kerry. Addressing the top American diplomat, Netanyahu said: “This is a real effort and we look forward to advance in this effort with you.”

Israel’s attempts to reengage the Palestinian Authority would include “economic components,” Netanyahu explained, adding that he welcomed any initiatives that Washington or other parties might have in this regard.

The issue of Palestinian prisoners was discussed with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry said. Without going into any details of their conversation, he emphasized that the topic is an important one and involves much emotion.

The secretary of state also said he would be engaging in a parallel effort to break down red tape and other barriers to economic progress in the West Bank to improve the lives of Palestinians and provide a climate for a two-state solution. He said such an effort would also improve Israel’s security.

Kerry said changes would come soon, and that more details would be announced in the coming week after meetings in Washington with US aid agencies and financial institutions. He stressed that he was not trying to dictate the terms of any peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

He noted the importance of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a document that has gotten renewed attention this week as Kerry and Arab officials have discussed modifying its terms to boost Israeli-Palestinian peace hopes. But he said the document belongs to Arab countries themselves.

“It suggests … a way forward for the Arab world to make peace with Israel,” the secretary said. “As such, it remains a very important statement.”

Addressing his talks with Mideast figures, Kerry said: “Each of them made very serious and well-considered, constructive suggestions, with respect to what the road forward might look like. And they all embraced the goal that we all share here. So this effort is not just about getting the parties into direct negotiations; it’s about getting everybody in the best position to succeed.

“This effort has been dogged by good intentions and failed efforts at one time or another for a lot of reasons,” he continued. “I think we all have had enough time to analyze those reasons and understand some of the lessons we need to learn, trying to go forward now.

“It’s our intention and we are committed to this, every party, to continue our intensive discussions with belief that they are constructive and in good faith,” Kerry added. “We intend to try to create the conditions for peace, so that we can resume negotiations between the parties in a clear and precise, predetermined manner.”

Kerry, who on Monday night met with Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, International Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, acknowledged earlier on Tuesday that deliberations about how to jump-start negotiations included “some economic initiative,” but suggested that real progress will only be achieved if both sides are ready for tangible political concessions.

“We want to make it absolutely clear that whatever steps we take with respect to economics are in no way a substitute, but they are in addition to the political track. The political track is first and foremost; other things may happen to supplement it,” he said.

Kerry, who will spend the next weeks and months engaging in shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Jerusalem, and Ramallah — trying to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table — said his Jerusalem meeting Monday night was “very productive” and that progress was made. Now Israel and the US have to do “some homework” in trying to assess ways to proceed, he added.

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

Kerry is reportedly considering formulating some kind of American bridging paper to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table.

‘President Obama doesn’t bluff on Iran’

Netanyahu and Kerry, during their Tuesday meeting, also reiterated the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

“I think everybody understands that Iran has been running out the clock, has been using the talks to continue to advance its nuclear program,” Netanyahu said, quoting news reports about Tehran inaugurating new nuclear facilities in the wake of another failed round of negotiations with the West. “I think we also understand what it means for the world to have rogue states with nuclear weapons. Iran cannot be allowed to cross into that world.”

Kerry stated unequivocally that “Iran cannot have, and will not have, a nuclear weapon.” While the US currently favors a diplomatic solution to the crisis, the negotiation process must not be allowed to go on endlessly, he said.

“It cannot be used as an excuse for other efforts to try to break out with respect to a nuclear weapon. But President Obama doesn’t bluff. He’s made that very clear to me.”

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