U.S. Gave Israel, Palestinians Letters of Assurance in Order to Renew Talks

Content of letters remains classified, yet probably addresses the issues of borders and refugees; Kerry says objective of talks is to reach a final-status agreement within nine months.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The United States administration gave the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams on Tuesday letters of assurance which outlined the U.S. position vis-à-vis the peace talks, their conduct and their goals, in order to facilitate the renewal of peace talks, a senior Israeli official said.

The content of the letters remains classified, yet it likely addresses the issues of borders and refugees.

In the letters, the U.S. apparently clarifies to the Palestinians that the American position is that negotiations should be carried out on the basis of the 1967 line with land swaps, and makes clear to Israel the U.S. position is that the future borders will not be identical to the 1967 lines but include changes in accordance to the reality on the ground.

Moreover, the letter to Israel apparently included an American declaration stating Israel is a Jewish state and that the U.S. position is that the Palestinian refugees should return to the future Palestinian state.

Responding to the report, the White House said: "We don't comment on Presidential correspondence."

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference following the start of the newly reopened peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that the objective was to reach a final-status agreement within nine months.

The talks began Monday night at a dinner for the negotiating teams and continued on Tuesday with two 90-minute rounds of talks aimed at setting out the principles for the negotiations. The first round of talks included U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk and his aides. But in the second round the Israeli team, which consisted of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho, met with the Palestinian team, which included Saeb Erekat and Mohammed Shtayyeh, without American mediation for the first time in four years.

Between the sessions the negotiators met with President Barack Obama at the White House. Also present at the 30-minute meeting, in addition to Kerry and Indyk, were Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Obama’s senior Mideast adviser Philip Gordon. Obama said Kerry was keeping him informed of the progress in the talks and had his full support.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday: “The president directly expressed his personal support for final-status negotiation. The president is engaged in this process. It was sparked by his visit to the region earlier this year.”

Although disagreement remains over some technical details, the parties reached consensus over a number of issues, which Kerry announced at the press conference. In addition to the nine-month timetable with its goal of a final status agreement, Kerry said: “The parties have agreed to remain engaged in sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues, and they will meet within the next two weeks in either Israel or the Palestinian territories in order to begin the process of formal negotiation.”

A senior Israeli official said the parties had agreed that because “the conflict was regional, the talks should take place in the region.” The parties agreed, during the current round of talks, that they will take place alternately in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and possibly in Amman.

Kerry defined the role of Indyk and his team as “facilitators,” not mediators or negotiators. Still, Indyk and his aides were in the room at least during the first round of the talks.

The Palestinians want the Americans to be full partners to all the talks so they can determine which party is dragging its feet and who is negotiating seriously. Israel, however, prefers the talks to be between the two sides and that the Americans be updated every few weeks. A senior Israeli official said that as the talks progressed, there would be meetings without the Americans present.

All the core issues are to be discussed during the nine months – the borders of the Palestinian state, security arrangements required by Israel, refugees, settlements and water. In terms of the issues to be discussed, the Palestinians gave up their demand to discuss only security and borders. However, significant disagreement remains over the order in which the issues will be discussed. The Palestinians want to discuss borders first, while the Israelis want security to be the first agenda item.

Kerry said at Tuesday’s press conference that Israel in the next days and weeks will take “a number of steps in order to improve conditions in the West Bank and in Gaza.” The intent is that Israel remove more roadblocks in the West Bank and make economic life easier for the Palestinians in Area C, the area of the West Bank under full Israeli civilian and military control.

The Israeli and the Palestinian teams agreed with Kerry that the talks would remain confidential and that only Kerry will be authorized to convey information to the media about the talks. “That means that no one should consider any reports, articles, or other – or even rumors – reliable, unless they come directly from me, and I guarantee you they won’t,” Kerry said.

Erekat said on Tuesday at the press conference that attaining peace was a Palestinian interest. “The Palestinians have suffered enough and no one benefits more from this endeavor than the Palestinians,” he said. Erekat said he was glad that all topics, without exception, would be on the table.

Livni said at the press conference that the process was “not going to be easy. It will be hard, with ups and downs. We are not going to argue about the past but talk about the future,” she said. Livni said that the parties had spent time in negotiations, that they had not completed the task, but neither had they reached a dead end. "There is a new opportunity, and we can't afford to waste it,” she added.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, left, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in Washington. Credit: AP

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