Kerry’s 5th Attempt: Some Progress but No Breakthrough
Israel Radio: PA agrees to give Kerry more time for his efforts to get sides to the negotiating table without placing a deadline • Israel considers staged release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners • Netanyahu says no compromise on security.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday showed no signs of bending to Palestinian preconditions as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed forward with efforts to restart Middle East peace talks. Palestinian officials told Reuters that Kerry’s trip provided no breakthroughs, but did yield some progress.
Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that he was ready to begin talks with the Palestinians immediately, but he made no mention of yielding to Palestinian demands to halt settlement construction or release Palestinian prisoners. (For an in-depth look at the Palestinian prisoners the PA wants released, see Nadav Shragai’s article “Abbas’ Hit Parade.”)
Netanyahu says he will not compromise on Israel’s security, and that if a deal is reached, he will seek approval in a national referendum.
Kerry extended his Middle East peace mission on Sunday, shuttling between Jerusalem and Amman for more talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on reviving their stalled negotiations.
But officials on both sides played down prospects of the bustle bringing about any imminent diplomatic breakthrough that would restart the talks. Despite meeting with Netanyahu for a total of 13 hours, including a marathon six-hour meeting overnight Saturday that ended at 3 a.m., and despite three separate meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (the last of which was still ongoing at press time), Kerry seems to have failed to bring both sides to agree to publicly and officially resume peace talks.
But Kerry’s trip may have scored some victories nevertheless. According to a report on Israel Radio on Sunday afternoon, the Palestinians have agreed to give Kerry more time to proceed with his efforts without placing a deadline for a resumption of unilateral moves at the United Nations. Israel, according to the report, is seriously considering the staged release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners which would take place not as a precondition to a resumption of talks, but as the talks happen.
Top Israeli defense officials have given the “all clear” to the political leadership for the release of pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners, saying that the release of these prisoners does not pose a security risk to Israel, the Israel Radio report stated. The issue of a Palestinian prisoner release is a sensitive and emotional topic for Israeli politically, and the Almagor Terror Victims Association on Sunday said that the prisoners slated for release have blood of Israelis on their hands.
According to Maan, the Palestinian Authority’s official news portal, “Israeli and Palestinian officials have held secret talks to discuss the release of prisoners detained before the 1993 Oslo Accords.”
According to the report published on Sunday, the main bone of contention relates to 107 Palestinians, whose release “will pave the way for renewed talks.”
The Israel Radio report also stated that some of the gestures Netanyahu would be required to make to jumpstart talks with the Palestinians might force Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett to resign from the government. Bennett has said on numerous occasions that he is not opposed to the resumption of peace talks and will not torpedo them, but that he is adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Canceling a trip to Abu Dhabi, Kerry on Saturday flew from Jerusalem to the Jordanian capital for a second meeting with Abbas. He then returned to Jerusalem to see Netanyahu for a third time. According to U.S. officials, Kerry wanted to hold a joint press conference with Abbas, but later called it off. State Department officials said Abbas and Kerry had met privately for about two hours at Abbas’s residence in Amman before advisers joined them.
Earlier in the day, an Israeli official said Kerry’s visit could yield an announcement that Israeli and Palestinian delegates would meet under U.S. and Jordanian auspices. But as Kerry headed into a late dinner meeting with Netanyahu and key advisers on Saturday night, a member of Netanyahu’s inner circle, Homefront Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, sounded less upbeat in a television interview.
Asked whether new direct talks with the Palestinians might be imminent, Erdan told Israel’s Channel 2: “To my regret, no, as of now.” “To the best of my understanding, Abu Mazen [Abbas] still has the same preconditions, which we have no intention of meeting,” Erdan said.
At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu talked about the late-night meeting with Kerry, saying, “Israel is willing to enter talks without delay, with no preconditions; we are not laying any obstacles when it comes to renewing talks on a permanent peace accord between us and the Palestinians.”
He stressed that the willingness to talk did not indicate Israeli flexibility on core issues.
“There are some things we are going to stand firm on during the talks, and chiefly among them is security,” Netanyahu said. “We will not compromise on security and there will be no agreement that would threaten Israeli citizens. I believe, in fact I think it is necessary, that the public gets to decide on any agreement, should it be reached.”
U.S. officials have compared Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy to Henry Kissinger’s Middle East peace efforts in the 1970s.
However, Kerry—now on his fifth visit as a peace broker to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate—has said he would not have returned to the region so soon if he did not believe he could make progress. He has been guarded about his plans to break the impasse, while warning time is running out.
He is keen to clinch a deal to resume talks before the U.N. General Assembly, which has already granted de facto recognition to a Palestinian state, convenes in September.
Netanyahu is concerned that the Palestinians, in the absence of direct peace talks, could use the U.N. session as a springboard for further statehood moves, circumventing Israel. Israeli officials still think Abbas might call off the talks shortly after they begin and then try to paint Israel as the rejectionist to lay the groundwork for his U.N. effort.
State Department officials believe the sides will return to negotiations once there is an agreement on confidence-building measures—such as a partial Israeli amnesty for Palestinian security prisoners—and a formula for fresh talks.
As an incentive for talks, Kerry is also working on a $4 billion economic plan led by British former Prime Minister Tony Blair, which would channel new investments in Palestinian areas via the private sector to boost jobs and economic growth.
Israeli officials have noted over the weekend that Jerusalem and Washington both want talks to resume without preconditions, but Abbas has so far refused to show flexibility.
Netanyahu’s office meanwhile refused to comment on Sunday on reports that the government is advancing the construction of 930 housing units in the Har Homa neighborhood in Jerusalem. The Housing Ministry clarified that these are not new plans, and that the housing units were approved some years ago. What has now been publicized is the eligibility of those who have won tenders, as well as grants and loans.