Kerry: Netanyahu and Abbas Will Have to Make Difficult Choices in Coming Weeks

Netanyahu and Kerry hold five hour meeting; Netanyahu: Israel questioning whether Palestinians are really interested in peace; Kerry in Israel for tenth visit in less than a year, to lay groundwork for framework agreement for peace talks.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel on Thursday as part of an intensive dialogue trip aimed at drafting a "framework agreement" with Israel and the Palestinians to determine the principles for a solution to the core issues of a permanent arrangement.

Kerry, who met first with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, told reporters at the start of the meeting that the sides would have to make some difficult choices over the next few weeks.

"We know what the issues are and the parameters," he added. "The time is soon arriving when leaders will have to make tough decisions. In the weeks ahead both sides will have to make tough choices."

During his meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas over the next three days, Kerry said, he planned "to work with both sides to narrow differences on a framework that will set guidelines for negotiations." The framework agreement would cover all of the core issues, he said, including borders, security, Jerusalem, refugee, mutual recognition, an end to the conflict and to legal claims.

The secretary of state emphasized that the framework agreement would be drafted in coordination with the ideas and positions both sides have raised in the 20 rounds of talks held over the last five months.

"The framework will address all core issues. My role is not to impose U.S. ideas but to facilitate the ideas of both parties," Kerry said. "We are 5 months into the peace talks. It's a long process but it is not mission impossible."

The secretary of state said that "the framework will provide agreed guidelines for final status negotiations. It will take compromise from both sides," he added "but an agreed framework will be a significant breakthrough."

"It will create the fixed defined parameters by which the parties will then know where they are going and what the end result could be," Kerry said. "An agreed framework will clarify and bridge the gaps between the parties so they can move forward towards a final peace treaty."

Kerry also praised Netanyahu for upholding his commitment to releasing Palestinian prisoners jailed before the Oslo Accords, despite the fierce criticism he faced in Israel. He also lauded Abbas for sticking with efforts to resume negotiations, despite opposition in the Gaza Strip and in the Palestinian leadership."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke before Kerry, took the chance to attack Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and raise doubts on whether he could be a partner for peace. "Given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders we have doubts in Israel that they are committed to peace," he said.

Netanyahu also lay criticism on Abbas for failing to condemn the terror attacks carried out in recent weeks against Israeli citizens, at least one of which involved an officer from the Palestinian security forces.

"Instead of preparing their people to peace, Palestinian leaders are inciting their people against Israel," Netanyahu said. "Peace means recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Abbas must reject terror and embrace peace."

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also took part in the Kerry-Netanyahu meeting, along with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho. On the American side, was special envoy Martin Indyk and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

The meeting lasted about five hours. A senior U.S. official told Haaretz that Kerry did not bring a draft of the framework agreement with him to the meeting.

Kerry will meet with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Friday morning and then another long meeting with Netanyahu is planned. Later in the evening, Kerry will head to Ramallah for two meetings with Abbas.

Saturday night, he will return to Jerusalem for another meeting with Netanyahu, and he may hold additional separate meetings with both Abbas and Netanyahu on Sunday before heading to Jordan.

Kerry's visit, the 10th to the region in under a year, aims to lay the foundations of a "framework agreement" that addresses the core issues of the decades-old conflict and open the way for an independent Palestine, according to U.S. officials.

But on the question of borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, leaders from both sides have sounded far apart this week.

Senior American and Israeli officials both said that despite the intensive talks Kerry will hold, no breakthrough is expected during this trip and no framework agreement is expected to be finalized. But Kerry is planning to return to the region a week later for yet another round of shuttle diplomacy.

Foreign minister surprisingly positive

Several people who met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in recent weeks were very surprised by his positive statements about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Two of them, a senior Israeli official and a Western diplomat, said that Lieberman spent several minutes praising Kerry and saying that Israel needs to give his efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian deal a chance.

Lieberman’s positive statements about Kerry are partly due to his efforts to turn over a new leaf with the U.S. administration, after his first term as foreign minister was marked by considerable tension with Washington. Leiberman’s first meeting after returning to the Foreign Ministry in November was with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; his first speech was devoted to urging the government to tone down its dispute with Washington over Iran’s nuclear program; and his first working trip abroad was to Washington.

But his positive statements are also due to a significant change in Washington’s attitude toward him since his return as foreign minister. A month ago, Kerry hosted Lieberman at a breakfast in Washington. Senior American and Israeli officials who attended the event said it was an excellent meeting – perhaps the best Lieberman has ever had with a senior American official.

Earlier on Thursday, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin said that “the 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders” and therefore Likud has to reject any proposal to withdraw from the West Bank.

Elkin, of the Likud party himself, spoke during a morning tour of settlements in the Jordan Valley attended by parliamentarians and ministers that are members the Land of Israel lobby.

The tour, in which Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) participated, took place a few hours before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Israel. Kerry is expected to meet Thursday evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the “framework agreement” for peace that the United States is interested in presenting to Israel and the Palestinians by the end of January.

“The Jordan Valley must be under Israeli sovereignty forever,” said Elkin at a dedication ceremony for a new neighborhood in the settlement of Gitit in the Jordan Valley. “Now of all times, in a government headed by Likud, in a settlement built by Likud, we can say loud and clear: You will remain here forever and there will be Israeli sovereignty here.”

Elkin added: “To all those who are now making proposals for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, there is only one reply, which was already given in 1969 by then- foreign minister Abba Eban: The 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders! The only reply that Likud government should give to such proposals is: No! It’s right to talk to our neighbors, but it’s illogical for them to ask us to give up the security of Israel’s inhabitants and Israel’s vital interests. Anyone who gives up the Jordan Valley will turn Kfar Sava into Sderot.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Secretary of State John KerryCredit: Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

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