US Secretary of State John Kerry said progress was being made in talks between Israel and the Palestinians, after meeting with leaders of both sides on Friday and Saturday.
Kerry met on Friday afternoon in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, before going to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He met again with Abbas on Saturday, before returning to Jerusalem for another round of talks with Netanyahu on Saturday night.
After Saturday’s meeting with Abbas, Kerry said the two sides were “not there yet, but we are making progress and we are beginning to flesh out the toughest hurdles yet to be overcome.
“I remain hopeful, as I have been, and I am confident that the talks we’ve had in the last two days have already fleshed out and even resolved certain kinds of issues and presented new opportunities for others,” he said. “That is the name of this game. This is hard work. There are narrative issues, difficult, complicated years of mistrust that have been built up, all of which has to be worked through and undone, and a pathway has to be laid down on which the parties can have confidence that they know what is happening, and the road ahead is real, and not illusory.”
The secretary of state will travel to Saudi Arabia on Sunday for an unscheduled visit, to brief the Saudi leadership on his talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and apparently to look for its support.
The visit comes at a time of tension between Riyadh and Washington, with the Saudis unhappy with the US-led interim agreement that the P5+1 world powers signed with Iran in November. The Iranian issue, and not only the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, is expected to come up in the talks.
Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia is consistent with his efforts, ever since becoming secretary of state in February, to place importance on getting the Arab League behind the Israeli- Palestinian talks. He has repeatedly made clear that he considers as a significant achievement the Arab League’s announcement last summer that it would support an Israel-Palestinian agreement that did not call for a complete return to the pre- 1967 lines, but would include small land swaps.
Abbas announced last week that any US-brokered framework agreement would be brought to the Arab League for its approval. Kerry will hold meetings in Amman on Sunday before going to Saudi Arabia. He is expected back in Israel on Sunday evening.
Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz – close to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the negotiations – said on Channel 2’s Meet the Press that the two sides were attempting not get to a “framework agreement,” but rather to a “framework” for future negotiations.
He explained that a framework agreement would be a document that both sides would have to sign, something that does not seem possible at present. Instead, he said, Kerry would present a framework that would form the basis for further negotiations and to which each side could append its reservations.
This type of framework would enable the negotiations to continue past their late-April deadline.
US Sen. John McCain, heading a three-man congressional delegation visiting the region, said at a press conference on Friday after meeting with Netanyahu that the prime minister had voiced “serious, serious concerns about the plan as it has been presented to him.” McCain said that these concerns had to do with security issues as well as the viability of a future Palestinian state.
The issue of what a Palestinian state might look like was also raised by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in separate meetings that he held on Friday with both Kerry and the congressional delegation.
Liberman said that even if all of the issues were resolved between Israel and the Palestinians and an agreement were signed, there would still be numerous problems stemming from a new Palestinian state, and that it was necessary to begin dealing with them now.
“It is reasonable to assume that after an agreement is reached, some of the other countries in the region will want to transfer the Palestinian refugees in their territory to territory that will be under Palestinian control,” Liberman said.
“This means that some 3 million refugees will be added to the 800,000 Palestinians who live today in the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria, and this will create a very difficult humanitarian situation, which will again lead to frustration, violence and a deteriorating security situation.”
Meanwhile, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz reiterated on Saturday what Netanyahu said on Thursday, before his meeting with Kerry, that there is a “great deal of doubts” about Abbas’s willingness to reach an agreement.
“It takes two to tango,” he said, adding that he viewed a PA-led incitement and anti-Semitic campaign against Israel as “the main obstacle to peace.” Steinitz’s director-general, Yossi Kuperwasser, is scheduled to brief the cabinet on Sunday on the “incitement index” that the ministry periodically puts together.
“My impression is that Abu Mazen [Abbas] may be interested in a Palestinian state, but without peace, without security and without real mutual recognition,” Steinitz said.
A PA official said that Abbas reiterated to Kerry over the weekend his opposition to any interim agreement with Israel, as well as his demand for the release of Palestinian prisoners that Israel held.
“President Abbas told Kerry that the Palestinians consider all settlements to be illegitimate,” the official added.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA presidency, said that Abbas reaffirmed the Palestinian stance that an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital should be established on the pre-1967 lines.
Abu Rudaineh said that the dialogue and meetings with the Americans would continue.
The two sides discussed all the issues and proposals and agreed to continue their discussion, he added.