U.S. Pushed Peace Talks to Avoid Israeli-Palestinian 'Train Wreck' at UN, Says White House Official

Disagreements remain ahead of the next round of talks, with the Palestinians demanding immediate discussion of border issues, while Israel is insisting that security coordination be brought to the table first and foremost; nevertheless, U.S. official says opening session was 'excellent'.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Fears of fierce battle within the UN General Assembly between Israelis and Palestinians in September was one of the primary reasons for the sense of urgency to renew negotiations between the two sides, a senior White House official said during a press briefing on Wednesday.

“The Palestinians throughout the course of this year have been making clear that if they couldn’t see progress on the peace front, that their intention would be to seek other elevations of their status, whether at the UN or other international organizations,” said the official.

“It is something that could have created a significant amount of friction and really interrupted the progress we want to see in the region. So it’s no secret that one of the motivating factors, I think for everybody, was to avoid that sort of train wreck that would have happened, if we weren’t able to get negotiations started.”

"With this process moving forward, the risk of clash at the UN or elsewhere is reduced or eliminated," the official said.

Negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians started on Tuesday in Washington, but the sides are still in disagreement over the agenda of the next round of talks, scheduled for the second week of August in either Jerusalem or Ramallah.

The Palestinians are demanding that the second round of talks begin with a discussion of border issues, while Israel is insisting that security coordination be brought to the table first and foremost.

“It’s fair to say that all the issues – the parties have agreed that all the issues would be on the table," A senior U.S. State Department official said. "Determining the sequence of addressing those issues is something that we will be working on together with the parties."

The American position regarding the negotiations is "unequivocally" the same as that which President Barack Obama outlined during a speech in May 2011, the U.S. official said. During that speech, Obama stressed that the borders of a future Palestinian state must be based on the 1967 borders and land swaps.

“We remain absolutely committed to that position,” said the official. “But it would not be safe to say that the parties have necessarily accepted that as the basis for their negotiations going forward.”

Haaretz reported Tuesday that the American government had written letters of assurance to the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams, in order to make the renewal of talks possible. The letters reinforced the American positions regarding the 1967 borders, Palestinian refugees, and Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. The text of the letters remains classified and will not be published.

A senior White House official present during the briefing said that the general atmosphere of the talks that were held in Washington on Monday and Tuesday was “excellent", despite the disagreements that remain between Israel and the Palestinians.

The United States will be deeply involved with the talks during the next nine months, the White House official said. “We will be there every step of the way,” the official said. “These are direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I think everybody understands we have an indispensable role to play in that process.”

Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, Martin Indyk, is visit the region in the coming days for a short trip. “I think it’s safe to say he will be in some meetings and he will not be in other meetings," the official said. "But it is also safe to say that he will be keeping a very close eye on the process and he’ll be deeply engaged throughout."

According to the American officials, the U.S. has decided not to let the issue of a settlement freeze impede the negotiations this time around, as that has been viewed as an obstacle to renewed negotiations over the past four years.

“It would be fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement continue,” said the State Department official.

The White House official told journalists that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear to the negotiating teams that chances are high that provocations will occur during the talks.

“Everybody knows that there will be people on both sides who will do things that will make things more difficult. And we hope that the parties will do what they can to not be provoked into letting those who are determined to interfere with the process succeed,” said the official.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (right), with the U.S.' John Kerry (center) and Israel's Tzipi Livni.Credit: AP

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