In a further indication of stirrings in the long-stagnant Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni met Thursday in Washington with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said for the second time in a week that he supports a public referendum on any agreement with the Palestinians.
Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s envoy on the Palestinian issue, accompanied Livni to her meeting with Kerry, where they discussed the peace process as well as regional developments, particularly Syria.
The meeting came three days after an Arab League delegation met with Kerry and US Vice President Joe Biden. Kerry said the delegation came to relaunch the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
That initiative also calls for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN Resolution 194, interpreted in the Arab world as enshrining a Palestinian right of return.
Kerry expressed hope that renewed US engagement would soon lead to a
"substantial initiative" toward achieving a two-state solution.
the importance of creating an environment conducive to the resumption of
talks and called on Israel to take positive steps to achieve this.
secretary of state further urged Israel to rescind the announcement of
building settlements in E-1. He also reiterated concern over the
situation of Palestinian prisoners and praised the recent announcement
that Israel would release several hunger striking prisoners.
On Monday, in an unexpected announcement, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the Arab League would accept an agreement that did not call for a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines but included “mild” land swaps.
While Livni immediately reacted positively to the Qatari announcement, Netanyahu has not yet publicly responded.
Livni has been charged with heading Israel’s team negotiating with the Palestinian when the talks are renewed.
Kerry has been busy ever since US President Barack Obama visited Israel in March trying to move the sides back to the negotiating table. The meeting with Livni, her first abroad in her new capacity, was arranged last week – one government official said – prior to the Qatari prime minister’s announcement.
Another official said Molcho has visited Washington “frequently” over the past few weeks. The official said there is close coordination between Netanyahu and the Obama administration on the new diplomatic initiative.
Kerry is expected to return to the Middle East shortly for further talks with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli officials said. No date has yet been given for that visit.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu added to the impression that talks with the Palestinians may start again soon by saying on Thursday he was interested in a referendum on any future agreement with the Palestinians.
He made a similar statement earlier this week at a Likud Beytenu faction meeting.
At that meeting, Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman opposed the referendum idea, which is being promoted by Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi). Livni also came out against the referendum idea.
Speaking before a meeting with visiting Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, Netanyahu said that one of the things Israel could learn from the Swiss was their use of referendum votes on major issues.
Netanyahu, rebuffing criticism that the elections to the Knesset represent the only referendum needed, said he was not asking for a public vote on “every issue” but, rather, just on a possible agreement with the Palestinians.
One government official said Netanyahu – mindful of the Oslo Accords, which passed by a single vote in the Knesset – believes if you are going to take a decision that will contain extremely difficult steps, it will necessitate “very special national legitimacy,” the type that can be granted only through a referendum.
While the official said that the sides were a very long way off from an agreement that might necessitate a referendum, “there are intensive and serious efforts under way to restart the peace talks.”
The very talk of a referendum, the official hinted, may give Netanyahu the political space needed to conduct negotiations, since the public will not have to be concerned that something is being “cooked up” behind its back.
In an interview with Channel 10 on Wednesday, former prime minister Ehud Olmert discussed the importance of taking immediate action in response to the recent Arab League peace overtures.
“I think we cannot, under any condition, pass up on any possibility that will lead to a return to peace talks,” Olmert said. “It’s a historic opportunity that the Knesset cannot afford to miss.”
Olmert called on Netanyahu to “lead Israel to peace talks and stop looking for excuses.”