Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Wednesday in Rome, setting aside an unusually long time for the meeting, seven hours, four of which will be spent in private talks with no aides present.
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Senior Israeli officials said most of the meeting will be devoted to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with Kerry seeking clear answers from Netanyahu on what compromises he is willing to make to obtain a final status agreement.
The meeting began in the early afternoon Rome time and was expected to end well into the evening. The two men will also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and the situations in Syria and Egypt, but Kerry is primarily interested in discussing the Palestinian issue.
So far, no significant progress has been made in the peace talks, which are headed on the Israeli side by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s special envoy, Isaac Molho, and on the Palestinian side by Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh. Nevertheless, Kerry is pleased that the pace of the talks has accelerated in recent weeks. Since negotiations began on July 29, 13 meetings have been held, of which three took place just in the last five days – last Friday in Jerusalem, Sunday in Jericho and Monday in Jerusalem again.
Moreover, American envoy Martin Indyk has recently gotten much more involved in the talks. In contrast to his practice during the first two months, Indyk now participates in most of the negotiating sessions.
“The pace has intensified, all the core issues are on the table,” Kerry said at a press conference with the Qatari foreign minister in Paris on Monday.
Kerry is continuing to push the talks with all his power, despite Netanyahu’s great skepticism about the chances of success and the hardline positions he has instructed the Israeli negotiating team to adopt during the three months since the talks resumed.
Had anyone been in doubt about Netanyahu’s attitude toward the peace talks, the prime minister’s address at Bar-Ilan University earlier this month, a few days after he returned from the UN General Assembly, provided ample evidence. But if that weren’t enough, the Israeli news site NRG reported yesterday that on the very eve of his meeting with Kerry, Netanyahu sent a letter to the Jewish community of Hebron wishing it success this weekend, when thousands of Jews traditionally flock to the West Bank city to honor the Biblical matriarch Sarah, who is buried there. The annual event coincides with the reading of the Torah portion that describes Sarah’s death and burial.
“Our deep connection to Hebron, via both permanent settlement and temporary settlement ... has never ceased,” Netanyahu wrote. “The renewal of the Jewish community in Hebron ... forged another link in the long chain of generations ... I hope that the ‘Hebron Shabbat,’ with its thousands of participants, will deepen our connection to the city of our forefathers.”
The recent rapprochement between the United States and Iran, and particularly the launch of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program earlier this month, have made Netanyahu entrench himself even more deeply in his positions on the Palestinian issue. He linked the two issues directly last night in a statement from Rome shortly before his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, warning that how the Iranian issue is resolved is liable to have a decisive impact on the Palestinian issue, for better or worse.
Kerry, who knows he will hear a long lecture on Iran from Netanyahu, is expected to reassure the premier that Washington has no intention of easing sanctions on Tehran at this stage, and won’t do so until Iran takes significant and irreversible steps to limit its nuclear program.
But senior Israeli officials, who asked to remain anonymous, said that immediately after giving this reassurance, Kerry is expected to start quizzing Netanyahu on how far talks with the Palestinians have gotten and what his positions are on various final-status issues – and above all, where he thinks the borders of the Palestinian state should lie. Kerry is expected to press Netanyahu to explain how he envisions the talks’ endgame and what he thinks the final agreement will look like.
So far, both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have dug in their heels and refused to display any flexibility. Kerry has therefore concluded that he must start pushing both men to the decision point now, rather than waiting until the nine months allotted for the talks are almost over.