Kerry Returning to Jerusalem and Ramallah to Push for Renewal of Peace Talks

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United States Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for the second time in less than two weeks, as part of the Americans’ efforts to kick-start the long-stalled peace process.

According to a senior Israeli official who asked to remain anonymous, Kerry is expected to arrive in Israel on Saturday night. Kerry is also expected to visit Turkey this week as part of his trip to Western Europe and Asia, to consult allies on issues including Syria's civil war.

Kerry spoke on Tuesday with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and informed them of his plan to return to the region.

Among the issues discussed were further confidence-building measures between the sides, which the administration of President Barack Obama hopes will pave the way for direct negotiations.

On March 23, one day after Obama ended his 3-day trip to Israel and the West Bank, Kerry started his campaign of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah. As a result of his talks with Netanyahu, the prime minister announced last week, just hours before the start of the Passover holiday, that he was ordering the Finance Ministry to resume transfer of tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which had been halted after Ramallah gained recognition of its statehood by the United Nations in November last year.

Kerry plans to continue traveling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in an effort to find a formula that would allow both sides to agree to direct talks. The issue of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails is likely to top the agenda when Kerry sits down with both sides, especially given the death of a long-term prisoner Tuesday and the disturbances that erupted across the West Bank as a result.

During their previous round of talks, Abbas told Kerry that he sees the issue of prisoners as paramount in any Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. The Palestinian leader made it clear he would be willing to meet Netanyahu if he agreed to free the 120 Palestinians who have been incarcerated in Israel since before the signing of the Oslo Accords. Similarly, the Palestinians are demanding the implementation of understandings they claim were reached with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whereby Israel supposedly agreed to free an additional 1,200 prisoners as a personal gesture of good will to Abbas.

Kerry’s plan would see a three-month preparatory period of talks between the sides, after which he would present his proposal for the resumption of direct talks. Until then, he is keen for Israel and the PA to commit to further confidence-building measures: on the Israeli side, restricting settlement construction and freeing prisoners, and on the Palestinian side, undertaking not to carry out any more unilateral approaches to the UN or associated bodies. Kerry also wants Arab states to contribute toward the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks: Later this month, a delegation of foreign ministers from Qatar, Jordan and Egypt are due to discuss the administration’s policy on the peace process.

Netanyahu and Kerry after their meeting in Jerusalem Saturday, March 23, 2013.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, PMO