July 19, 2013

Kerry wins step to resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

Israel and Palestinian negotiators will soon meet in Washington to work out final details of relaunching peace negotiations.

The Washington Post

AMMAN, Jordan — Israel and the Palestinians have tentatively agreed to resume peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, offering a sliver of hope that a bitter, violent conflict that has consumed the region for more than a generation could be settled at the negotiating table.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at Queen Alia International Airport on Friday, July 19, 2013. Kerry says Israel and the Palestinians will meet soon in Washington to finalize an agreement on relaunching peace negotiations for the first time in five years. Kerry has told reporters that he and the two sides "reached an agreement that establishes a basis for direct final status negotiations," but he added that it is "still in the process of being formalized." The announcement Friday came at the end of a visit by Kerry to the region holding several days of talks with both sides. (AP Photo/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center right, on Friday, in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The Associated Press

"On behalf of President Obama, I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Kerry told reporters in Amman.

But even as he made his announcement after four days of shuttle — and helicopter — diplomacy here and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Kerry conceded that important details need to be worked out before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas actually sit down face to face.

Israel and Palestinian negotiators will soon meet in Washington to work out final details of relaunching peace negotiations. "If everything goes as expected," the diplomats should meet within a week "or very soon thereafter," Kerry said late Friday.

The secretary cautioned that "the agreement is still in the process of being formalized." Kerry declined to give any details on what had been agreed so far.

The negotiations would mark the first direct talks in three years, following decades of failed efforts. Obama made an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal a priority early in his first term, but the 2010 negotiations quickly broke down, and the issue slid from the top of his administration's agenda until Kerry took it up again this year.

Kerry's announcement, with its caveats, was clearly not everything he had wanted. But it was enough to be considered progress.

Kerry has devoted much of his time as secretary of state to persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to resume negotiations.

Palestinian leaders have balked at returning to the bargaining table without a promise that negotiations over a future Palestinian state would be based in principle on the pre-1967 borders.

Netanyahu has said many times that Israel is willing to go to negotiations immediately — but without preconditions.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zev Elkin told Israel Radio on Friday that "a negotiation in which you first say what you are willing to give up is not the kind of negotiation that leads to good results in the Middle East."

After his brief remarks, Kerry took no questions. He said the two sides had agreed that he would shepherd the talks.

The diplomats expected to meet face to face in Washington are chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who will be accompanied by Netanyahu's close aide, Isaac Molho.

"These were months of skepticism and cynicism," Livni wrote on her Facebook page Friday night. "But now, four years of political stalemate are completed. I know this is an opportunity, but I also know that the moment negotiations begin it will be complex and not easy. However, I am firmly convinced that it is the right thing for our future, our security, economy and the values of Israel."

But in a sign of how tenuous the talks remain, Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, warned that what Kerry is presenting is not enough.

"It is very dangerous for the Palestinian people to resume negotiations without a written commitment by Israel to freeze settlement-building and to recognize the 1967 lines as a start of agreement," Bargouti said. "I am afraid Israelis will use negotiations as cover for continuing to build settlements and land confiscation, so I think that we will face another failure and it will be a never-ending story."

Kerry said nothing about when Netanyahu and Abbas would meet, but he praised both leaders. "Both of them have chosen to make difficult choices here," Kerry said, without elaboration.

Kerry said both sides had agreed that only he would make further comments about the plan for talks, which he said is still a work in progress.

The Obama administration has pushed hard for a resumption in talks, even as crises in Egypt and Syria have competed for officials' attention. On Thursday, Obama spoke with Netanyahu by phone and encouraged him to continue to work with Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians, according to a White House statement.

Kerry had extended his trip to avoid returning to Washington empty-handed. He met twice on Friday with Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, in Amman, before jumping on a helicopter to meet with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

That meeting lasted only an hour. Kerry subsequently returned to Amman and then flew back to Washington.

Kerry had hoped to restart talks in June and had said during his last visit to the region, late last month, that a deal to do so was within reach.

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