Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the Israeli public would determine the fate of any future agreement with the Palestinians, a comment that may have hinted at progress in discussions with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Israel is ready to enter negotiations without delay and without preconditions,” said Netanyahu, speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “We are not putting up any barriers to a resumption of talks for a permanent accord… but we will adamantly ensure our security.”
He said it was “essential that any agreement, if reached, must be brought to the people for approval.”
Netanyahu made the statement after having met at length with Kerry Saturday night. Kerry went on to visit Ramallah for an unplanned third meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in as many days.
Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi said he believed the sides would eventualy find a way to resume talks. Hanegbi said that at the moment neither party was focusing on the core issues, but rather were finding ways to reach the table without creating the perception that they capitulated on their “red lines.”
Over the weekend, Kerry engaged in breakneck shuttle diplomacy in an effort to coax Israel and the Palestinians back into peace talks, meeting three times with Netanyahu and twice with Abbas. Though no official word came out of Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington, statements by officials — both named and unnamed — painted a picture of intensive back and forth deliberations with the first goal being a four-way summit in Amman, Jordan.
While Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan downplayed the chances for progress toward talks in an interview to Channel 2, on Saturday, on Sunday morning Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz sounded more optimistic about the chances Kerry’s efforts would lead to a breakthrough.
“We are at a very sensitive crossroads now,” Peretz told Israel Radio. “This morning may still produce results. There is no reason to pour cold water over the process.”
Peretz, who is Tzipi Livni’s number two in the Hatnua party, said that one of the critical issues currently on the table, following Kerry’s late night meeting with Netanyahu Saturday, was the timing of Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. “It is clear the matter of releasing prisoners will arise in talks, the question now is whether they will be released before or after talks resume.”
According to a report in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Abbas made the release of 127 prisoners — including 25 Arab residents of Israel and East Jerusalem — a key demand to Kerry in the two leaders’ meeting on Saturday. Netanyahu, who reportedly fears that Abbas will blow up talks after this demand is fulfilled, agreed to release them but only in a gradual fashion and only after talks get under way.
Kerry was expected to deliver a statement summing up his visit on Sunday afternoon.
A government minister close to the talks said that aside from the matter of the prisoners, the main issue holding up a breakthrough was the Palestinians’ demand that Israel freeze building over the Green Line, which Netanyahu refuses to agree to.
In a meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter in May, Netanyahu said he wanted Israelis to have their say on any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
“We have a saying in Israel: Israel isn’t Switzerland. And what they mean by that is that your neighborhood is more tranquil and less challenging. That is true. Still, I don’t know of any Israeli who would like to exchange our country for somewhere else,” Netanyahu said then.
“But there are a few things that I think we can learn from you, and one of them is the referendum. Not for every issue; not on every point of debate; but on one thing — which is, if we get to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, I’d like to bring it to a referendum.
“I support the referendum for the simple reason that it’s a very important issue,” Netanyahu also told members of Likud-Beytenu at a recent faction meeting. ”I don’t think a diplomatic agreement can be decided by an arbitrary majority.”
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen for more than four years, but in recent months, the referendum issue has once again become a topic of debate in Israel.
Opponents say a deal should be decided by elected legislators while supporters say a referendum would provide popular legitimacy.
Israel passed a law in 2010 that would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority or, failing that, a referendum on ceding the Golan Heights or East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their would-be state. Both areas were captured in 1967.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.