U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Tuesday with at least one achievement: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to advance Palestinian economic projects in the West Bank’s Area C, where Israel has complete security and civilian control.
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The Palestinian Authority has long sought to advance agricultural, industrial, tourism and infrastructure projects in the area, but have been stymied by Israeli authorities. Kerry said he agreed with the two sides to keep the details secret at this point, and that additional information regarding the move will be released next week.
“We agreed among us ... that we are going to engage in new efforts, very specific efforts, to promote economic development ... and to remove some of the bottlenecks and barriers that exist with respect to commerce in the West Bank,” he said.
“Economic growth will help us to be able to provide a climate, if you will, an atmosphere in which people have greater confidence about moving forward,” Kerry said.
“But I want to emphasize, and I emphasize this very strongly, this is not in lieu of or an alternative to the political track. It is not a substitute. The political track remains the primary focus.”
He emphasized that the renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians must deal with borders and security, recognizing that both sides have needs that should be met.
A senior Israeli official who met Kerry during his visit, his second to Jerusalem and Ramallah since assuming his post, said that Kerry is determined to try and jump-start the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The official said Kerry had said several times during this visit that the time for making the two-state solution work is running out, and that progress must be made toward a peace agreement.
“Kerry plans to invest a lot of his time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue over the next best be conducted as far from the media as possible.
“It’s not going to be done and shouldn’t be done in piecemeal public releases,” he said. “It’s best done quietly.”
Kerry said that the parties are all committed to a process that could “create the conditions for peace,” adding that he was being mindful of the “good intentions and failed efforts” that have dogged Middle East diplomacy in the past.
He vowed to focus on “laying the groundwork so we can bring people to the table with a clear understanding of what we’re beginning on, what we’re trying to do, and where we’re trying to end up.”
The U.S. diplomat mentioned that the issue of the Palestinian prisoners was raised during his meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, saying he recognized the importance of the matter without going into further detail.
A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu has expressed a willingness to consider releasing prisoners who have been incarcerated since before the 1993 Oslo Accords, but only after the Palestinians return to the negotiating table.
Kerry denied asking Arab nations to revive the Arab Peace Initiative, adding that while the proposal is an important contribution to the dialogue, it cannot be used as a foundation for negotiations.
With Kerry at his side before talks earlier in the day in Jerusalem, Netanyahu told reporters that Israel wanted to “make a serious effort” to end the conflict with the Palestinians.
“This has economic components, and we welcome any initiatives that you and others will bring forward in this regard,” Netanyahu said.
“But it also has a political component, political discussions that will address a myriad of issues. Foremost in our minds are questions of recognition and security,” Netanyahu added, referring to his demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.