With just five days to go before a decisive White House meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S. Secretary John Kerry admitted on Wednesday that mutual trust between Israel and the Palestinians was at an all-time low.
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“The level of mistrust is as large as any level of mistrust I've ever seen, on both sides,” he told a Congressional hearing. “Neither believes the other is really serious. Neither believes that the other is prepared to make some of the big choices that have to be made here.”
Under the deal Kerry brokered last summer to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel is slated to release a fourth and final batch of Palestinian prisoners on March 28. The weeks until then are expected to be critical to American efforts to draft a framework agreement that would serve as the basis for another year of peace talks. Though the nine months allotted to the current round of talks aren’t officially over until the end of April, the Americans fear that if the framework document hasn’t been agreed on by the end of March, Israel will refuse to release the final batch of prisoners and the talks will collapse.
Speaking to the House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, which was discussing the State Department’s budget for 2015, Kerry tried to sound optimistic about the chances of reaching an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians despite his comments on the deep distrust between the parties.
“I still believe it's possible, but difficult,” he said.
“I hope we can get an agreement that would get an extension of talks,” he continued. “There are gaps – some of them very significant. I believe progress has been made in some areas – we hope we can get some kind of understanding about the way forward.”
The biggest gaps, Kerry said, are on the so-called “narrative” issues – presumably a reference to core issues like the status of Jerusalem, Israel’s demand for recognition as Jewish state and the Palestinians’ demand that refugees be granted a “right of return” to Israel. "Certain narrative issues are so powerful and so difficult that neither leader is going to definitively cede on them at an early stage of the negotiation,” he acknowledged.