US, Israel raise hopes for Mideast peace restart

US, Israel raise hopes for Mideast peace restart

We want talks ‘above all,’ says PM; Palestinians pessimistic; Kerry in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Thursday

US Secretary of State John Kerry (center) poses for a group picture with, from left to right, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on May 23, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (center) poses for a group picture with, from left to right, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on May 23, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

The United States and Israel raised hopes Thursday for a restart of the Middle East peace process, despite little tangible progress so far from US Secretary of State John Kerry’s two-month-old effort to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

As they met in Jerusalem, Kerry praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the “seriousness” with which he is looking at ways to revitalize peace hopes. Kerry expressed optimism without outlining any concrete strategy for ending a stalemate between the two sides that has seen them hardly negotiate one-on-one at all over the last 4½ years.

“I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism, in some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it,” Kerry told reporters. “There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient — but detailed and tenacious — that we can lay on a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people and certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace.”

“That’s what we’re working towards,” said Kerry, who was to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later Thursday in Ramallah.

Netanyahu said his conversation with the top American diplomat would touch on mutual concerns about Iran and Syria. “But above all,” he said, “what we want to do is restart the peace talks with the Palestinians.”

“It’s something I want, it’s something you want,” Netanyahu told Kerry. “It’s something I hope the Palestinians want as well and we ought to be successful for a simple reason: When there’s a will, we’ll find a way.”

The visit, Kerry’s fourth trip to the Jewish state since taking office as secretary of state in February, coincides with deepening pessimism from Palestinian officials about the new peace push. They are planning to resume their campaign of seeking membership in key international organizations as early as next month in a bid to put pressure on Israel into offering some concessions.

The most immediate divide concerns the issue of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — lands that Israel conquered in the 1967 Mideast war and which the Palestinians hope to include in their state.

Palestinian officials say that Kerry has given them a June 7 deadline for finding a framework for talks. American officials say they have never set a formal deadline for Mideast peace talks resuming or any other benchmark being reached.

While Palestinians praised Kerry’s efforts, they said there has been little progress ahead of the June 7 deadline for action. They are already beginning work on a “day-after” strategy.

“We don’t have unrealistic expectations. We know the immensity of obstacles,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official. “If it doesn’t work, of course we have our own plans.”

The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making it increasingly difficult to partition the land between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel also captured the Gaza Strip in 1967, though it withdrew from the territory in 2005.

The Palestinians have demanded that Israel freeze settlement construction and accept the pre-1967 frontiers as the baselines of a future border. While previous Israeli leaders have used the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.

On Thursday Nabil Shaath, a senior official and a former chief negotiator and foreign minister for the PA, said the new Israeli government hasn’t made any impact with regards to the peace process.

Another PA source told Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam on Thursday that negotiations were unlikely to resume, since Kerry has not been able to persuade Netanyahu to cease construction in the settlements or agree that the 1967 lines will serve as a basis for negotiations.

When US President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he took a tough line against the settlements and prodded Israel into a partial construction freeze. But Abbas stayed away from the talks for nine of the 10 months of the freeze, and Israel refused to extend it. Obama initially tried unsuccessfully to press Israel into accepting the 1967 lines as a baseline for talks, but on his visit to the area in March told the Palestinians to stop demanding preconditions and get back to the table.

Fed up with the impasse and disillusioned with Obama, the Palestinians last fall won recognition from the UN General Assembly as a nonmember state, an upgraded diplomatic status that gives them access to key UN bodies. The US was one of just eight countries that sided with Israel in opposing the bid.

Israel fears the Palestinians will now seek membership in international agencies to promote an anti-Israel agenda. Its biggest concern is that the Palestinians will try to join the International Criminal Court and try to press war crimes charges against Israel.

Israel’s chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said Thursday that Israel and the Palestinians must push forward with peace efforts, in a message directed mainly to hardliners in her own country, and that the next few days could be critical to Kerry’s effort.

“The Palestinian issue isn’t something that will disappear and it is not an issue where someone can say, ‘There are more worrying things, so let’s not deal with it,'” she told Israel Radio.

“I still think that the freeze of the past four years is bad,” she said, speaking in Hebrew. “As time elapses, the ability to ignite the negotiations gets more problematic. The price that Israel pays both in the short and long term are higher. And therefore the freeze does not serve those that want to reach an agreement.”

Livni said the Israeli-Palestinian standoff only serves those who believe in mantras like “here we are holding on to the land, here we built another house, here we prevented an agreement.”

“This isn’t me and I don’t believe it represents the mainstream or the basic position of the Israeli public,” she said. “And I believe I represent the Israeli national and security interests in the long-term.”

However, her close adviser on Palestinian issues, Foreign Ministry official Tal Becker, doesn’t believe that a peace agreement with the Palestinians will be possible within the next several years, the Maariv daily reported. Becker blamed Abbas, who he said is “not enthusiastic about returning to talks” and is “unwilling to pay the political price” for entering into serious negotiations with Israel.

Kerry’s plan remains opaque, even to officials in the Obama administration. One element will clearly focus on improving the Palestinian economy by spurring private investment. He also recently persuaded the 22-member Arab League to renew a decade-old peace offer to Israel, with new incentives aimed at making it more attractive to Israel.

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