Kerry Returning to Middle East, Hoping to Narrow Gaps Between Israel and Palestinians

Secretary of State's formula for resuming talks includes settlement-construction freeze, release of 103 Palestinian prisoners within six months.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is to arrive toward the end of this week for another round of talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Kerry, who will be in the region in the context of events in Egypt and rising tensions between Israel and Syria, hopes he can present an achievement in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to resume direct negotiations. However, it is unclear whether gaps between the two sides have narrowed enough to make this possible.

Since Kerry left the region last Sunday, his senior adviser on the Mideast peace process, Frank Lowenstein, has been shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Lowenstein has been meeting almost daily with the Israeli negotiating team, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy, Isaac Molho. He has also been holding frequent meetings with Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat reported on Saturday that Kerry has formulated a plan to renew talks whereby Israel would freeze construction outside the major settlement blocs, release 103 Palestinian prisoners within six months, advance Palestinian economic projects in Area C of the West Bank ‏(the area under full Israeli civilian and security control‏), and that the talks would be based on the 1967 borders.

According to Al-Hayat, talks would proceed for six to nine months and the parties would discuss all matters pertaining to the final status agreement. A Western diplomatic source told Haaretz he did not deny the details in the report.

In fact, Lowenstein is trying to get the parties to agree to a document that would contain the principles for the renewal of talks, but no agreement has emerged. For example, Netanyahu has agreed to consider an unofficial hiatus in new construction outside the large settlement blocs during the period of the talks. But the Palestinians still want an official statement by the Israeli government that all construction in the settlements is being stopped.

With regard to prisoners, the Shin Bet security service has informed Netanyahu of its opposition to the release of a few dozen prisoners on the Palestinians’ list. Netanyahu has agreed to the release of some 60 prisoners, but only after the renewal of talks, and only in a phased manner.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants all the prisoners released at once.

As for basing the talks on the 1967 lines, a senior Israeli official said that if talks are renewed, Kerry will announce that they will be based on the 1967 lines with exchanges of territory. This would allow both the Palestinians and Israelis to present their public objections to the issue, while accepting it in principle.

Two senior officials close to the talks had two different opinions on the progress being made. One said the gaps were getting smaller, while the other said the talks were “one step forward, two steps backward.”

Speaking over the weekend at the town of Kfar Yasif in the Western Galilee, Erekat said the Palestinians had presented their positions to the Americans and were waiting for a response.

A Palestinian official told Haaretz that, even if the plan has been correctly reported, this does not mean the Palestinians will accept it as is. The Palestinians particularly object to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and to a construction freeze only outside the large settlement blocs, the official said.

Kerry meets Netanyahu in Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters

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