US Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that progress was being made in talks between Israel and the Palestinians as a result of his Mideast shuttle diplomacy, but Palestinian sources spoke of wide disagreements, and the chief Palestinian negotiator ruled out any kind of interim deal.
Kerry held talks in Ramallah for a second day with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and then came back to Jerusalem for a third meeting in three days with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are not there yet, but we are making progress,” the secretary said in Ramallah. “This is hard work,” he said. “Years of mistrust” had “to be undone” and confidence restored.
Kerry told reporters that “we are working with great intensity and serious purpose with a commitment to resolve this conflict.” He said his sessions on this, his 10th visit to the region this year, “fleshed out, even resolved, certain kinds of issues and presented new opportunities for others.” Kerry had told American students visiting Israel on Friday, dropping on unexpectedly on their visit, that he remained “hopeful and a believer in the possibility” of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Kerry also announced he would head to Jordan and Saudi Arabia on Sunday to update leaders there on the talks and on other issues, and indicated he would come back to Israel and the West Bank later in the month.
Kerry is trying to nudge the leaders closer to a framework agreement to guide talks for a final settlement in the decades-long dispute. But the two sides are at odds over many key core elements of any accord, and the differences are becoming increasingly open.
Palestinian sources told AFP that Abbas had rebuffed pressure from Kerry to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. They also said the secretary was proposing a joint Israeli-Palestinian presence to control the West Bank-Jordan border, where Israel has insisted on ongoing IDF control and Abbas has sought an international military presence.
The unnamed Palestinian sources also claimed Kerry had suggested a new formulation for Jerusalem, under which it would be termed the capital of both states without a clear definition of East Jerusalem’s outlines, that Netanyahu had “apparently” agreed to this, and that the Palestinians had rejected it. There was no confirmation of these claims, and Kerry has refused to go into the specifics of his proposals thus far.
The American diplomat was greeted in Ramallah on Saturday by approximately 200 Palestinian protesters who demonstrated against his trip, AFP reported. There had been demonstrators, too, when he went to Ramallah on Friday.
Israel’s ministers on Sunday are to hear a briefing on ongoing Palestinian incitement against Israel, which Netanyahu has blamed for an uptick into terror attacks on Israeli targets in recent months. Netanyahu has also reportedly been complaining to Kerry that Israel has released dozens of Palestinian terrorists in the cause of the peace effort, and that he is facing criticism from the public, his party, and within his coalition as he tries to encourage progress with Abbas. Yet, the prime minister has reportedly told the secretary, Abbas is proving inflexible in the talks, and Israel faces the prospect of being blamed if the negotiations fail.
Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz asserted Saturday that Abbas wants a Palestinian state but without peace or recognition of Israel.
Israel’s Channel 2 news reported that Netanyahu would bring any framework agreement before the cabinet before approval. Hawkish ministers would be likely to reject any significant concessions in such an agreement, such as a reported readiness by Netanyahu to negotiate Palestinian statehood on the basis of the pre-1967 lines with land swaps. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett has set “red lines” for any concessions, the TV report said Friday night, and threatened both to bolt the coalition with his own Orthodox-nationalist party and seek to woo hawkish Likud members to join him.
Contradicting Kerry’s optimistic statements, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told local media on Saturday night that “There’s no place to talk about interim agreements or extension of the negotiations, and that’s also what I told Kerry.” (The talks began in late July and are set to end in April.)
“I want to clarify that contrary to what was said concerning the existence of American written statements, Kerry didn’t bring us anything except for recommending ideas,” Erekat said. He added that the two sides were still discussing ideas and recommendations put forward by the Americans but that there were no written documents. “The way remains long and difficult,” Erekat said. “Kerry will return to Ramallah in the coming days and will continue to discuss matters.”
On Friday, Erekat was quoted claiming that Israel might contemplate killing the PA president, and accusing Israel of poisoning Yasser Arafat. On Saturday, he was more positive, declaring: “Failure to us is not an option. We really are doing everything possible to ensure the success of Secretary Kerry’s efforts.”
The two sides are known to differ utterly on Kerry’s proposed security arrangements for a Palestinian state, with Israel insisting on retaining an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley for an undefined period after Palestinian statehood, and Abbas firmly opposing any Israeli presence. As part of his framework deal, Kerry has reportedly been asking Netanyahu to agree to a Palestinian state based on amended pre-1967 lines, with certain land swaps, and Abbas to agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — both positions resisted by the parties thus far.