Ahead of Kerry visit, J'lem unsure if talks will restart

Official: Gov't hasn't approved any new W. Bank construction, is eager to see Kerry succeed in his mission to re-start talks.

June 27, 2013 01:21
4 minute read.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, May 31, 2013.

John Kerry 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government has not authorized a single new building project in the West Bank during its first 100 days in office, an Israeli official said Wednesday. The statement came on the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting Thursday night with Netanyahu.

“We want to see the resumption of the negotiations,” the official said. “We want to see Kerry succeed, and are ready for serious negotiations with the Palestinians. We hope the Palestinians agree to engage seriously.”

The complete cessation of all settlement activities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is one of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s preconditions to negotiations, besides a demand that the pre-1967 lines be the starting point for talks.

On Wednesday, the Jerusalem Municipality’s Local Planning Committee gave final approval to plans for 69 new homes in Har Homa, beyond the Green Line in Jerusalem, that had been submitted to them by a contractor who had previously been awarded the bid for the new construction. The homes are among the last parcels of a project of more than 1,000 new homes in Har Homa approved in August 2011, for which tenders were issued in April 2012.

One government official deflected speculation that this announcement would harm Kerry’s efforts, saying the project was on private land by a private contractor. He said the Prime Minister’s Office had not known about the approval until it read about it on Wednesday in the media.

Following the brouhaha created during US Vice President Joe Biden’s 2010 visit, when an announcement was made of new units in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood over the Green Line, the Prime Minister’s Office created a mechanism that was supposed to alert it to any projects in the pipeline coming up for approval at sensitive diplomatic periods.

One official said the Har Homa project did not fall into that category because it was not a government project, and with Kerry coming back and forth so frequently, his entire tenure so far could be considered a “sensitive diplomatic period.”

Kerry, in Kuwait before leaving for Jordan, said that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were both committed to reviving peace talks, but he acknowledged that progress on the long-stalled negotiations would be tough.

“I believe [that] they believe the peace process is bigger than any one day or one moment, or certainly more important to their countries than some of their current political challenges,” he told a news conference in Kuwait with Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah.

“That is why both of them have indicated a seriousness of purpose. I would not be here now if I didn’t have the belief [that] this is possible.”

This will be Kerry’s fifth visit to Israel since March. He is scheduled to arrive Thursday from Jordan and leave the region on Saturday.

Kerry said he did not want to set any deadlines for the peace process, but called for progress before the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Mistrust needed to be overcome, he said, to “avoid the disappointment and failures of the past.”

There is some concern in Jerusalem that Abbas may enter talks but then bolt soon afterward in order to launch a diplomatic offensive against Israel at the UN General Assembly meeting.

The Palestinian daily Al-Quds reported on Wednesday that Abbas and Netanyahu were scheduled to meet in Jordan this weekend with Kerry.

Quoting a source in Washington, the semi-official newspaper said that the Abbas-Netanyahu meeting would be followed by a series of meetings between chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians.

The source voiced optimism regarding the prospects of breaking the stalemate in the peace process during Kerry’s visit.

“Kerry has received a promise from Abbas to return to the direct negotiations with Israel,” the source said.

A top PA official in Ramallah would neither confirm nor deny the report about the planned summit between Abbas and Netanyahu. The official said the US has been exerting heavy pressure on Abbas to resume the peace talks with Israel.

“President Abbas has agreed to resume the talks [with Israel] to avoid being held responsible for the failure of Kerry’s efforts,” the official explained.

An Israeli official said he was unaware of any plans for such a summit. But, he added, if Kerry’s mission succeeded, there would obviously be Israeli-Palestinian meetings at the highest levels. The sense in Jerusalem was that matters were still fluid, and it was unclear whether this time Kerry would succeed in bringing the parties back to negotiations.

Abbas told the Qatari TV channel Al Jazeera that this would be his seventh meeting with Kerry since the latter entered office.

“We hope Kerry is carrying something important and new because we care about the success of the peace process,” Abbas said.

Abbas reiterated his readiness to return to the negotiating table with Israel. He said that a peaceful settlement could be achieved between Palestinians and Israelis through negotiations.

“We have said more than once that if the Israeli government believes in the two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders, we would be ready to return to the negotiating table.”

Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.

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