ISRAEL-PALESTINE TALKS TO BEGIN WITHIN ‘A WEEK OR SO’ says Sec Kerry

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US SECRETARY of State John Kerry said on Friday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet in Washington within ‘the next week or so’ after an agreement on the basis to resume peace talks.

The announcement came after he spent four days consulting the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships – and a last-minute helicopter dash to Ramallah in the West Bank.

‘I’m pleased to announce that we’ve reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,’ Kerry told reporters in Amman, Jordan.

‘This is a significant and welcome step forward. The agreement is still in the process of being finalised, so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now.’

A US State Department official said: ‘They have agreed on the core elements that will allow direct talks to begin.’

Kerry said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni would meet him in Washington ‘to begin initial talks within the next week or so’.

The announcement came at the end of four days of intense diplomacy by the secretary of state as he consulted Israeli and Palestinian leaders from his base in the Jordanian capital.

Kerry’s last-minute whirlwind diplomacy came after the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah rejected his proposals for a framework to guide the relaunch of peace talks with the Israelis, stalled for nearly three years.

The setback to Kerry’s peace push came from the governing Revolutionary Council of Abbas’s own Fatah movement, which demanded changes to the US plan.

Talks have stuttered and started for decades in the elusive bid to reach a final peace deal between the Arab world and Israel.

But they collapsed completely in September 2010 when Israel refused to keep up a freeze on settlement building in Palestinian territories.

Kerry was upbeat in speaking to reporters before he left Amman late on Friday for Washington.

In his brief comments, he praised the courage of Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

‘No one believes the long-standing differences between the parties will be resolved overnight or just wiped away. We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead,’ he said.

‘Today, however, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because of the courageous leadership by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here and both of them were instrumental.’

Kerry arrived in the Jordanian capital on Tuesday, where he held two rounds of talks with Abbas. He also won endorsement from the Arab League for his proposals to resume talks.

His plan would have seen Israel, now ruled by a coalition that has tilted sharply to the right after elections early this year, make only a tacit commitment to slow settlement construction in the occupied territories, not the publicly announced freeze long demanded by Abbas.

On Wednesday, the US envoy had expressed cautious optimism that he was making progress.

But he acknowledged that there were still differences over ‘the language’ governing any resumption of talks.

It was the top US diplomat’s sixth visit to the region since he took office in February.

On Thursday, US President Barack Obama urged Netanyahu to resume talks.

‘The president encouraged Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to work with Secretary Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible,’ the White House said in a statement, after the two leaders spoke by telephone.

Kerry’s latest peace bid had been complicated by new European Union guidelines for its 28 member states that will block all funding of Jewish settlements.

On Friday Kerry had met with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat in a final push to get a peace bid back on track before heading home.

The meeting came after the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah rejected Kerry’s proposals for a framework to guide the relaunch of peace talks stalled for nearly three years.

The two men met in Amman for talks which lasted barely 45 minutes, after Kerry and his team spent a long night waiting to see what the Palestinians would do.

The setback for the US plan came from the governing Revolutionary Council of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s own Fatah movement, which demanded changes.

The broader Palestine Liberation Organisation, which also includes leftwing factions less sympathetic towards a compromise, said it was also drawing up a formal response to Kerry’s proposals.

Palestinian member of parliament Mustafa Barghouthi said ‘most factions’ within the PLO had rejected Kerry’s proposal.

‘It is appropriate and encouraging that there is such a serious debate about these issues,’ Barghouthi had commented in a statement in the early hours of Friday morning.

‘During the leadership meeting . . . most of the Palestinian factions . . . rejected restarting peace talks based on Kerry’s proposals,’ he said.

PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusef said the Palestinian leadership had ‘decided to form a committee to respond to Kerry’s proposals.

‘Kerry did not present guarantees to stop settlement building, nor base (peace talks) on 1967 borders,’ he said.

Kerry’s plan would see the right-wing Israeli government make only a tacit commitment to slow settlement construction in the occupied territories, not the publicly announced freeze long demanded by Abbas.

On Wednesday, the US envoy had expressed cautious optimism that he was making progress towards a deal to restart talks after his proposals were endorsed by Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi and senior Gulf Arab diplomats.

But even he had to acknowledge that there were still differences over ‘the language’ governing any resumption of talks.

A senior Fatah official said the party wanted changes to what Abbas had agreed.

‘Fatah wants to make some alterations to Kerry’s plan . . . because the proposed ideas are not encouraging for a return to negotiations,’ said the official.

The announcement came after two rounds of intensive talks in Amman between Kerry and Abbas, who is Paletinian president and also Fatah leader.

It was the top US diplomat’s sixth visit to the region since he took office in February, to try to broker a compromise to resume direct negotiations.

Kerry on Wednesday had been hopeful of progress.

‘Through hard and deliberate, patient work, and most importantly through quiet work, we have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly,’ he told reporters.

‘We continue to get closer and I continue to be hopeful that the two sides will come to sit at the same table.’

Kerry’s latest peace bid came against the backdrop of Israeli anger at new European Union guidelines for its 28 member states that will block all funding of, or dealings with, Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu on Wednesday called Kerry and warned the EU was ‘damaging efforts to restart the talks’.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leaders said that they had reached a consensus with Kerry that for talks to resume, Israel must agree to negotiate on 1967 lines, release an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners and stop settlement building.

The Palestinian negotiators asked Kerry to present the demands to Israel.

Fatah’s Central Committee, which met on Thursday to discuss Kerry’s plan, said the Palestinian demands must be met in writing and not just verbally.

Fatah then said that the Palestinians are expecting to return to talks in the coming days, but that Israel’s rejection of the 1967 borders and its refusal to stop settlement building nixed the possibility of resuming negotiations.

It said Israel had agreed to release 250 Palestinian prisoners, and to release Palestinians detained before the 1993 Oslo Accords, in stages – once talks resume.

PLO Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yousef said Palestinian factions were forced to refuse to return to talks because Israel would not announce a settlement freeze or recognise the Palestinian state.

He said that the Palestinian leadership expected Israel’s rightist government to demolish Palestinian hopes of statehood.

The Palestinian people will refuse negotiations without a clear framework, Abu Yousef said, adding that the alternative was to head to the United Nations and request to join international bodies where they could seek legal action against Israel.

Then came the last minute meeting between Kerry and Abbas and the announcement just before Kerry flew back to Washington that talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would begin within a week or so in Washington after an agreement on the basis to resume peace talks.

These talks will see – that is if they take place – Israel and the US trying to force the Palestinians to accept plans and proposals that the Palestinian people regard as unacceptable.