Kerry back in Middle East amid predictions of possible concessions in Israel-Palestine talks


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Jerusalem Thursday for his fifth visit in less than three months, amid reports of a possible breakthrough in peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Analysts note that there are still many obstacles to serious peace negotiations, not least of which is opposition from within the Israeli government. But Israel’s Hebrew-language press reported this week that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas have agreed to a series of concessions that one American diplomat called “exciting.”

According to the reports, Netanyahu’s goodwill gestures include freeing more than 100 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and freezing all new construction outside the Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank. Abbas, meanwhile, would drop his request for Israel to officially and publicly declare that the peace talks are being conducted on the basis of the 1967 border lines.

“This is very exciting. This is, well, it would be the first real progress or step forward on the peace talks in years,” said the American diplomat, who spoke to McClatchy on the condition he not be named because he’d been told to keep details of the peace talks out of the news media. “We really need to see these kinds of concessions to keep the momentum going in the right direction.”

He said that Kerry was trying to hold three-way, direct talks with Netanyahu and Abbas in Amman, Jordan, next week. If Kerry succeeds in putting together a meeting, it would be the first time in nearly three years that the senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders have sat face to face to discuss peace.

“The shuttle diplomacy that we have been conducting hasn’t worked until now,” said the diplomat, noting the irony of Kerry relaying messages between Netanyahu and Abbas when the governments’ headquarters in Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively, are less than a 30-minute drive apart. “These two need to sit in the same room and hammer it out.”

Earlier this week, Netanyahu made headlines as he called for “serious talks” with the Palestinians, adding that he would even drive halfway to Ramallah to achieve it.

“If Secretary Kerry, whose efforts we support, were to pitch a tent halfway between (Jerusalem) and Ramallah – that’s 15 minutes away driving time – I’m in it, I’m in the tent,” Netanyahu said. “And I’m committed to stay in the tent and negotiate for as long as it takes to work out a solution of peace and security between us and the Palestinians.”

Abbas made similar comments, telling reporters in Ramallah that the peace talks were critical and that he was ready to engage in “real, thorough negotiations.”

Less optimistic analysts list a host of reasons to not be enthusiastic.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah resigned last week, after only 14 days in office, citing widespread corruption in Abbas’ government in the West Bank. Hamdallah, who succeeded Salam Fayyad in the post, had been expected to help shape the Palestinian economy at a time when Europe’s Middle East envoy, Tony Blair, has been assigned to funnel a $4 billion economic stimulus program through the Palestinian territories.

Reconciliation talks between Abbas’ Fatah movement and the Gaza-based militant Hamas movement have stalled. Hamas has remained deeply opposed to any peace talks and has said it would not honor agreements made by Abbas.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is facing increasingly vocal objections from his own government over the prospect of concessions.

Various members of Netanyahu’s coalition took to Israel’s Hebrew-language radio stations to condemn the idea of “two states for two peoples.”

One of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners, Cabinet minister Naftali Bennett, drew an analogy in which he suggested that for Israel, the Palestinian issue was akin to having “shrapnel in the buttocks.”

Although it could be removed by a risky operation, the patient would be “left disabled,” he said, suggesting it was something that Israel simply had to live with.

“We won’t veto the negotiations, we won’t bring down the government over this,” Bennett told army radio, saying he didn’t believe “anything much” would come out of Kerry’s upcoming visit.

In briefings with reporters, U.S. officials have argued that the lack of expectations around Kerry’s initiative could work to his advantage, because there was no “great pressure” to achieve a breakthrough. Kerry, however, has said that coming weeks were critical and that time was running out for a negotiating a two-state solution.

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf

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