U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks arrives at Ben Gurion International Airport Jan. 2, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks arrives at Ben Gurion International Airport Jan. 2, 2014. Photo by Reuters
Text size

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel on Thursday in his latest bid to reenergize peace negotiations and find scarce common ground between pessimistic Israeli and Palestinian officials.

His visit, the 10th to the region in under a year, aims to lay the foundations of a "framework agreement" that addresses the core issues of the decades-old conflict and open the way for an independent Palestine, according to U.S. officials.

But on the question of borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, leaders from both sides have sounded far apart this week.

Kerry will meet with Netanyahu this evening and again on Friday afternoon. He will then meet with Mahmoud Abbas on Friday evening, and again on Saturday morning. Saturday night, he will return to Jerusalem for another meeting with Netanyahu, and he may hold additional separate meetings with both Abbas and Netanyahu on Sunday before heading to Jordan.

Senior American and Israeli officials both said that despite the intensive talks Kerry will hold, no breakthrough is expected during this trip and no framework agreement is expected to be finalized. But Kerry is planning to return to the region a week later for yet another round of shuttle diplomacy.

Foreign minister surprisingly positive

Several people who met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in recent weeks were very surprised by his positive statements about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Two of them, a senior Israeli official and a Western diplomat, said that Lieberman spent several minutes praising Kerry and saying that Israel needs to give his efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian deal a chance.

Lieberman’s positive statements about Kerry are partly due to his efforts to turn over a new leaf with the U.S. administration, after his first term as foreign minister was marked by considerable tension with Washington. Leiberman’s first meeting after returning to the Foreign Ministry in November was with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; his first speech was devoted to urging the government to tone down its dispute with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program; and his first working trip abroad was to Washington.

But his positive statements are also due to a significant change in Washington’s attitude toward him since his return as foreign minister. A month ago, Kerry hosted Lieberman at a breakfast in Washington. Senior American and Israeli officials who attended the event said it was an excellent meeting – perhaps the best Lieberman has ever had with a senior American official.

Earlier on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said that “the 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders” and therefore Likud has to reject any proposal to withdraw from the West Bank.

Elkin, of the Likud party himself, spoke during a morning tour of settlements in the Jordan Valley attended by parliamentarians and ministers that are members the Land of Israel lobby.

The tour, in which Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) participated, took place a few hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Israel. Kerry is expected to meet Thursday evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the “framework agreement” for peace that the United States is interested in presenting to Israel and the Palestinians by the end of January.

“The Jordan Valley must be under Israeli sovereignty forever,” said Elkin at a dedication ceremony for a new neighborhood in the settlement of Gitit in the Jordan Valley. “Now of all times, in a government headed by Likud, in a settlement built by Likud, we can say loud and clear: You will remain here forever and there will be Israeli sovereignty here.”

Elkin added: “To all those who are now making proposals for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, there is only one reply, which was already given in 1969 by then- foreign minister Abba Eban: The 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders! The only reply that Likud government should give to such proposals is: No! It’s right to talk to our neighbors, but it’s illogical for them to ask us to give up the security of Israel’s inhabitants and Israel’s vital interests. Anyone who gives up the Jordan Valley will turn Kfar Sava into Sderot.”