Leaving Israel, the US secretary of state pushes for negotiations without preconditions
May 24, 2013, 3:16 pm
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israel's government on Friday to prevent further settlement construction where possible to help revitalize Middle East peace hopes, but stressed that the Jewish state and Palestinians alike should remain focused on the larger goal of restarting direct negotiations.
Explaining part of the strategy of his now 2-month-old peace initiative, Kerry said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government can stop only some of the settlements being built in lands contested by the Israelis and Palestinians and in those cases it should act. Unlike in previous American-led mediation efforts, however, he stopped short of demanding a full settlement freeze and said the contentious issue could better be handled through a quick restart of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Palestinians have long demanded an end to such construction before returning to talks, which have hardly occurred at all in the last 4½ years. The US has supported Netanyahu's demand for negotiations to restart without preconditions an endorsement renewed by Kerry after two days of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah with Israeli and Palestinians leaders.
Kerry said it was important not to let settlements stand in the way of talks that could finally set borders as part of a peace agreement. Then, he said, the issue would be resolved because each side would have clear boundaries for their two states.
Despite the continued difficulties in even getting the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Kerry insisted he believed peace is possible.
Earlier Friday, he met Netanyahu for the second time in as many days and then spoke with outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
On Thursday, Kerry praised Netanyahu for the "seriousness" with which he is looking at ways to revitalize peace hopes.
Kerry's trip, however, only seemed to prompt more pessimism from Palestinian officials about chances for peace.
They say 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.
Without major US pressure on Israel, the outlook seems bleak. 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.
Last week, Kerry called Netanyahu to complain about a move to legalize four previously illegal settlements in the West Bank, according to US officials. Publicly, however, he has taken a softer touch and Palestinians are dismayed.
Kerry brought "nothing new" to his discussions Thursday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, lamented one Palestinian official familiar with the talks. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the private meetings, said Palestinian expectations remain low because they see Kerry "trying to accommodate the Israelis, not pressure the Israelis."
While Palestinians have praised Kerry's efforts, they say there has been little progress ahead of what they believe to be a June 7 deadline for action. They are already beginning work on a "day-after" strategy.
And they 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.
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he took a tough line against the settlements and prodded Israel into a partial construction freeze. But Israel refused to extend the freeze, and a short-lived round of negotiations in 2010 quickly collapsed. Obama similarly tried unsuccessfully to press Israel into accepting the 1967 lines as a baseline for talks.
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.
Kerry: Israel, Palestinians need to choose peace
Visiting Israel for fourth time in four months, U.S. secretary of state says regional players have reached a "critical moment" in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Palestinian officials say conditions are not yet ripe for renewal of talks with Israel.
Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials on Thursday and acknowledged there was considerable skepticism that the two sides would resume peace negotiations.
Kerry met with President Shimon Peres, who wished Kerry success in his mission. Kerry responded by saying success would be a prize for Israel and the Palestinians, not for him.
"You said that 'if you succeed' or 'if you fail' -- it's not me, Mr. President," Kerry said. "It really is a question of whether Israel and the Palestinians make the choices."
Kerry added that regional players had reached a "critical moment."
There were no signs of any breakthrough as Kerry visited Israel for the fourth time in his four months in office to try to revive a peace process that has been moribund for more than two years.
Kerry also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.
"I know this region well enough to know that there is skepticism," Kerry said as he and Netanyahu posed for pictures. "In some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it. 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 out a path ahead that can conceivably surprise people but certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace."
Kerry met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for lunch in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Kerry was also scheduled to see Netanyahu again on Friday for breakfast.
Before his meeting with Kerry on Thursday, Netanyahu said he wanted to restart peace talks.
"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," Netanyahu said.
The two men discussed ways to advance peace, Kerry's ideas for an economic plan to boost Palestinian growth and the "escalating violence" in neighboring Syria's civil war, a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters after the meeting.
Netanyahu thanked Kerry for the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee's approval of legislation to impose tighter sanctions on Iran.
Visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague also held talks with Netanyahu and Abbas on Thursday.
During his meeting with Hague, Netanyahu said that the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report clearly showed that Iran was continuing to develop its nuclear program.
On Friday, Hague met with Peres in Jerusalem and expressed support for U.S. efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peres, in turn, praised Hague's efforts and positions.
"You have made your position extremely clear on the major issues," Peres said. "On Iran, on terror, on the need to move forward the peace process and we feel not only your clear positions but also your friendship and understanding."
Hague told Peres that 70 percent of his work in foreign affairs has to do with the Middle East.
"Taking into account the situation with Iran's nuclear program and the tragic situation in Syria and, of course, our hopes now are that we can, through supporting Secretary Kerry in his work, really help to make some decisive moves forward for permanent peace," Hague said, echoing European Union support for U.S. efforts.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of diplomatic negotiations, met with both Kerry and Hague on Thursday. Livni said the coming weeks would be critical to resuming talks with the Palestinians.
"The objective is to restart negotiations and end the conflict," Livni said. "This is an American goal. It's in Israel's interest and I hope the Palestinians understand this."
In Ramallah on Thursday, dozens of demonstrators greeted Kerry outside of Abbas' office, protesting "the pro-Israel tendency of the U.S."
After the meeting, Kerry stopped at a restaurant in Ramallah to eat shawarma and some traditional sweets.
Israel Radio reported on Friday that Palestinian officials said conditions are not yet ripe for the renewal of negotiations with Israel. The officials said the U.S. still does not have a formulated plan to renew Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Abbas is expected to meet with Kerry again on Saturday in Jordan.