Obama Returns to Washington, Kerry Stays Behind to Try and Restart Negotiations

The American Secretary of State met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Saturday, and later with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, seeking confidence-building measures from both sides.

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U.S. President Barak Obama flew home to Washington on Saturday after wrapping up a four-day Middle East trip, leaving Secretary of State John Kerry behind to explore steps to renew peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman on Saturday, and later with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other Israelis in attendance included Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in her capacity as negotiator with the Palestinians, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and Netanyahu’s special envoy Isaac Molcho.

Kerry has follow-up visits scheduled for April and May. He intends to invest three to six months in getting talks renewed, and believes negotiations should focus first on the borders of the Palestinian State and Israel’s security concerns.

Before leaving for Jordan on Friday, President Obama held a two-hour meeting with Netanyahu and briefed him on his talks with Abbas. Netanyahu insisted that future talks should also address Israel’s security concerns due to the Arab Spring.

A senior U.S. official told Haaretz that Obama and Kerry urged Netanyahu and Abbas to carry out confidence-building steps to enable the resumption of serious negotiations.

“We believe that there does need to be a positive environment around those talks so that steps do need to build trust and confidence so that both parties feel invested in a process that can work. So that was the message that we conveyed,” the official said.

Obama and Kerry said they would not accept any pre-conditions to talks, such as a settlement freeze, but told Netanyahu that in order for negotiations to succeed, Israel must not do anything to undermine them such as expanding settlements or announcing plans to do so.

Obama stopped short of demanding a settlement freeze, as he did in November 2009, but expects Netanyahu to take “quiet actions” to rein in construction. Still, the Americans demanded a halt to the controversial building plans for the E1 area between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem, which would cut the West Bank into two parts. “Clearly, settlements are counterproductive. Clearly, if you move forward with something like E1, that’s clearly going to be an impediment to achieving peace. So there’s a context through which we would ask Israel to look at settlement activity,” said the U.S. official.

Kerry urged Netanyahu to take a number of confidence-building measures, most importantly the release of Palestinian prisoners - the Palestinian Authority has demanded that Israel free some 120 prisoners who have been in jail since before the Oslo accords; the secretary of state has also urged Israel to continue to remove checkpoints in the West Bank, and approve Palestinian Authority projects in Area C, which is under Israeli military and civilian control.

On the political front, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu's main coalition partners remained silent as regards to the diplomatic maneuvering that took place during the weekend. People close to Bennett said he may comment on Sunday. Lapid said he he "spoke at length with John Kerry on the importance of restarting the peace negotiations," but offered no further information.

Obama and Kerry have also asked Abbas to take trust-building steps of his own, including making a pledge not to pursue actions against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, avoiding additional unilateral actions at the UN and making efforts to curb the incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media.

"We'd like to see the Palestinian people feel like there's an Israeli government that is allowing them greater access to economic opportunity," the official said. "On the Israeli side, we've said we'd like to see a Palestinian Authority that reinvests in a negotiated settlement rather than the type of unilateral action that we've seen at the U.N."

The London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported over the weekend that the American officials have proposed to convene Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian and U.S. envoys in Amman early in May. Kerry is expected to make efforts to promote the Jordanian-backed initiative in the coming months. The proposal was reportedly brought forth during a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Amman on Friday night.  

Obama and Kerry are also said to be seeking the support of Turkey and moderate Arab states, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and countries in the Gulf region, for the renewal of the peace process. Amid concerns that Abbas is unlikely to resume direct talks with Israel without Arab support, Kerry is making efforts to get these states to ratify the Arab Peace Initiative during the next Arab League summit and take measures to normalize ties with Israel. The initiative from 2002 stipulates that Arab states would establish diplomatic ties with Israel in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the1967 borders. 

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