He left the region Monday empty-handed after his 10th visit since becoming Secretary of State. He did not get the framework agreement he wanted, but promised to return next week to try to finish the task.
Netanyahu told Likud MK’s that the American declaration of principles for the peace talks that Kerry will eventually present will contain elements that one side or the other will dislike. If Kerry’s proposal is accepted as the basis for extending the negotiations beyond their original April deadline, both sides are likely to express serious reservations. Israel will object to accepting the 1967 borders with minor land swaps as the basis for territorial negotiations. The Palestinians will object to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, and giving up the refugee right of return.
Kerry has yet to finalize his proposal, and is still working on both sides to get the necessary level of approval to move forward.
Netanyahu said that he was successful in his recent meetings with Kerry in convincing him of the importance of Israel maintaining control over the large settlement blocks, and areas that are important to Jewish history, such as Chevron and Beit El.
Kerry held a total of 20 hours of direct talks, separately, with Netanyahu and Abbas over a 3 day period starting last Thursday, without much progress. Nevertheless, he said he remains optimistic about chances for a breakthrough despite what he called the “high level of mistrust” between the two sides.
Kerry warned both sides that they would have to become more proactive in moving the negotiations forward because he can’t maintain his current pace of visiting the region every two weeks to keep the talks going. He insisted on the need to wrap up the basic “fixed, defined parameters by which the parties would then know where they are going and what the end result can be.”
He emphasized that his role is not to impose US ideas on the two sides, but to help the parties bridge the gaps between them on the main issues through their own efforts.
KERRY SCALES BACK HIS GOALS
By scaling back his short term objective to reaching a framework agreement, Kerry tacitly admitted that his original goal of reaching a comprehensive final peace agreement by April was too ambitious. Nevertheless, he refuses to accept “no” for an answer from either Israel or the Palestinians, who have always been privately skeptical about the chances for success since he initiated the current round of talks last summer.
Before leaving Israel on Monday, Kerry met with opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog, who expressed the continued support of his Labor party for the negotiations. Herzog told reporters that, “we’ve reached a historical moment in decision-making. I feel that we have no alternative other than separation from the Palestinians and the establishment of two states.” Herzog said that for the moment, it was up to Netanyahu and Abbas to “decide if they are able to lead a courageous and historic deal.”
Kerry left behind a flurry of unconfirmed media reports which claim that there has been movement by both sides toward an agreement on several final status issues. According to other reports by Arab and Israeli critics of the talks, the differences remain unbridgeable, and there is not enough mutual trust to continue with negotiations. According to them, Kerry’s effort is on the verge of collapse.
Finance Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said Monday that the current opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians “is real and closer than it appears. We cannot miss it.”“ He added that his party “will stand behind any courageous decisions made to reach an agreement to disengage from the Palestinians.”
LIEBERMAN’S CONTROVERSIAL OFFER
According to a senior Jordanian official, Netanyahu agreed to a proposal made publicly by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday to swap the Wadi Ara region in northern Israel, also known as the “Arab Triangle,” including the towns of Umm al-Fahm and Tayiube, for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, without requiring any evacuations by either side. The area, which is southeast of Haifa, adjacent to the northern edge of the West Bank, is now home to 300,000 Arab-Israelis.
Lieberman believes that a peace agreement should not require any population exchanges, and leave current Arab and Jewish populations in place. He also says that Israel must reject international pressure to accept the right of return of any Palestinians to its territory. He predicted that a peace agreement would draw up to 3 million Palestinians now living elsewhere across the Middle East to the West Bank, and that Syria and Lebanon would be likely to expel all the Palestinians now living there. This would severely strain the resources of the new Palestinian state. Lieberman questioned whether that state could survive the onslaught. “Where will they live? What will they eat? Where will they work? And how will it affect Israel?” Lieberman asked.
Nevertheless, he expressed support for “a true, sustainable and comprehensive peace agreement. Even with all of the doubts in my heart regarding the true intentions of the other side, dialogue between us is important, even when we disagree, when we don’t really trust one another.”
LIEBERMAN SAYS KERRY IS GIVING ISRAEL ITS BEST OFFER
Speaking at a conference of ambassadors, Lieberman praised Kerry’s “clear cut” framework proposals on the issues most important to Israel. He added that all “other proposals from the international community would be worse for us.”
But he insisted that he and his political party, Yisroel Beiteinu, which is allied with the Likud, would not support any peace agreement that would “kick anyone out of their homes or take their property.” Instead, he suggests modifying the pre-1967 borders so that those living in the so-called Arab Triangle and Wadi Ara “join their Palestinian brothers under full Palestinian sovereignty, and become citizens of the Palestinian state they so long for.” Israeli-Arab leaders living in the Wadi Ara and Arab Triangle regions have rejected Lieberman’s proposal to add their Arab-populated areas in northern Israel to a future Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority has rejected the idea as well.
A source close to Lieberman said that he has raised his land swap idea with Kerry, who has not ruled it out as an option.
WHAT IS NETANYAHU READY TO GIVE UP?
When Likud MKs asked Netanyahu about Lieberman’s proposal for a land swap using the Arab Triangle and Wadi Ara, he noted that the foreign minister has been promoting that idea for some time, without expressing his own opinion.
Right wing MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Moshe Feiglin said that Netanyahu rejects their proposal for annexing the entire West Bank.
Netanyahu told them, “I know some of you favor annexing the West Bank together with the Palestinians, but I don’t want to control up to 2 million Palestinians and neither do most Israelis.”
The right wing MKs said they were left with the impression that Netanyahu is not only willing to surrender uninhabited West Bank land of no strategic importance to the Palestinians, but also isolated West Bank settlements beyond the security fence.
Ma’ariv reports that Kerry has been pressuring Netanyahu to allow some Palestinian refugees to live in Israel, in return for getting Abbas to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. So far, Netanyahu has resisted, and refuses to allow any Palestinians to resettle inside Israel. Ma’ariv reports that Netanyahu wants to see the current peace negotiations with the Palestinians extended through the end of this year, and is willing to agree, in return, to freeze new construction in parts of the West Bank.
KERRY’S JORDAN VALLEY PROPOSAL
A Jordanian official said that Abbas secretly agreed to Kerry’s offer to establish a joint US-Israeli military force, with Palestinian observers, to patrol the strategic Jordan Valley for three years after an agreement is reached. Publicly, Abbas and the PA insist that they will not permit any Israeli military presence on the West Bank. The Jordanian source disputes this and says that Kerry is pressuring Abbas to permit the mixed force to stay in the Jordan Valley indefinitely. Earlier reports in the Arab media said that Kerry told King Abdullah of Jordan that without some positive movement by both sides, he would not continue sponsoring the talks beyond the originally April deadline.
It is not clear whether Kerry’s proposal to create an international force with Israeli participation to patrol the Jordan Valley will satisfy Israel’s security needs. Israel had a bad experience in 1967 with a UN-sponsored peace-keeping force which was pulled out of the Sinai Desert at Egypt’s request, clearing the way for an attack on southern Israel and an Egyptian blockade of the port of Eilat. Since that time, Israel has not trusted the international community to protect its safety. More recently, the UN failed to enforce Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and was supposed to prevent Hezbollah from being rearmed with missiles with which to attack northern Israel.
Israel’s Intelligence Minister, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio that Israel’s “security must remain in our hands. Anyone who proposes a solution in the Jordan Valley by deploying an international force, Palestinian police or technological means … does not understand the Middle East.”
Three Republican senators visiting Israel while Kerry was there last week, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Barrasso said they share the concern over Kerry’s plan to maintain Israel’s security following a withdrawal from the West Bank.
“We feel very strongly that the peace process is very important sooner or later, and we support the legitimate peace process,” McCain said, while expressing concern about whether some aspects of Kerry’s proposal are “truly enforceable and viable options,” suggesting that they might put Israel in jeopardy.
PALESTINIANS REJECT KERRY’S “GREATER JERUSALEM” IDEA
Palestinian sources say that Kerry is proposing to resolve the status of Yerushalayim by establishing the concept of a “greater Jerusalem” which would serve as the capital of both Israel and the new Palestinian state, without assigning clear sovereignty over the entire city to either one.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, warned that if Kerry continues to push his proposal on Yerushalayim, he will risk destroying the negotiating process he started.
He said that the Palestinians consider Kerry’s proposal for a joint US-Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley to be a “step backwards” from the arrangements which then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed to Abbas during their talks in 2008. When those talks ended, Abbas refused pleas by then Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice to lock in the concessions Olmert had offered by signing a memo of agreement. Therefore, none of Olmert’s offers are legally or morally binding.
CAN THE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE FALL INTO PLACE?
At a news conference in Yerushalayim on Sunday, Kerry described his three days of talks with Netanyahu and Abbas as “very positive – but I have to say very serious, very intensive conversations” which touched on all of the final status issues.
“I know that there are those out there who, on both sides, question whether peace is possible,” Kerry said. “But it is clear to me that we can work to bridge the remaining gaps that do exist. The puzzle is becoming more defined. It is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are. But I cannot tell you when, particularly, the last pieces may decide to fall into place or may fall on the floor and leave the puzzle unfinished,” admitting the real possibility of the talks ending in failure.
KERRY INVITES IRAN TO HELP WITH SYRIA
Kerry suggested that the US might drop its objections to Iranian participation in an international peace conference on Syria to be held in Geneva later this month if Iran would accept its basic goal of planning for a post-Assad Syrian regime. He went a step further, suggesting that Iran might still be able to informally “contribute from the sidelines” at the conference without being required to abandon its support for Assad. The next day, a State Department official suggested that one way Iran could do that would be by persuading Assad to halt the bombardment of rebel-held areas of Aleppo, and allowing humanitarian aid to reach starving civilians in rebel-held portions of Syria.
The administration has been harshly criticized by US allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, for failing to carry out President Obama’s threat to launch a punitive strike against Assad for his use of chemical weapons last year, and for relaxing some of the sanctions on Iran in return for a 6-month freeze on its nuclear program that has yet to be implemented.
France objects to allowing Iran to participate in the peace conference, as long as it continues actively supporting Assad. The issue of Iran’s participation will be discussed next week in London by a group of 11 countries supporting the pro-Western Syrian opposition.
While Iran has not commented directly on Kerry’s invitation, a spokesman for its foreign ministry said Tuesday that it will not accept any proposal for its participation in the Geneva talks that “does not respect its dignity.”
Kerry flew to Jordan on Sunday to update its king on the status of the peace talks, and then went on to Riyadh to brief Saudi King Abdullah on the negotiations. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters that the meeting “belies” media reports of “bad vibes” between the US and the Saudis over Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis. He did not comment specifically on the Israeli peace talks other than to say that any agreement that satisfies the Palestinians “will receive the full support of Saudi Arabia.”
NETANYAHU’S GOOD WILL GESTURE ON NEW CONSTRUCTION
When Kerry returned to Israel last week, he knew that it would be difficult to keep the peace talks moving forward. In response to a US request to avoid any move which might provoke the Palestinians, Netanyahu postponed the expected announcement of new West Bank construction projects following the release of another 26 terrorist killers from Israel jails last week, even though linking the terrorist releases and new construction announcements was part of the original deal under which the talks were restarted last year.
The Israeli government waited until Monday, the day Kerry returned to Washington, to publish tenders for the construction of 272 new homes in the West Bank settlements of Ofra and Karniel Shomron. A spokesman for Netanyahu said the decision to approve the project was made in October. The publication triggers a 60 days period for the public to file objections to the new homes before the plan moves forward.
Netanyahu’s good will gesture of delaying the construction announcement did not stop Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, from once again calling upon the PA to break off the negotiations and resume its efforts to seek Israel’s prosecution by the International Criminal Court for war crimes against Palestinians.
Erekat said in an interview published in a London-based Arabic newspaper last week that Israel Foreign Minister Lieberman is laying the groundwork to assassinate Abbas.
He repeated the canard that Yasser Arafat died in 2004 due to Israeli planted radioactive poisoning, and implied that Abbas faces the same danger.
“Before Arafat was killed by poison, there were calls” in a previous Israeli government to “get rid” of him, Erekat said. “They are repeating the same thing now,” citing a report that Foreign Minister Lieberman has told European leaders that Abbas should be removed. This is an example of the mentality of the people Israel is negotiating with and the explosiveness of the Palestinian rhetoric.
KERRY’S RISKY MOVES
Kerry’s decision to give up on reaching a final agreement by April, and set a deadline instead for reaching a framework agreement, is a risky for two reasons. First, either side could decide to try to run out the clock to Kerry’s deadline while trying to duck the blame for the failure of the talks. Another danger is that the framework may not succeed in breaking the negotiating deadlock. That is what happened a decade ago when a US and UN-sponsored “roadmap” for a final status peace agreement, published on April 30, 2003 was never implemented. Instead, nit-picking led to the total breakdown of Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
According to both US and Palestinian sources, Kerry’s immediate goal is to arrange a face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas by mid-February. It would be the first time they met since September 2010, after President Obama personally invited them to the White House to restart negotiations. Those talks didn’t last long.
Unless it is well-prepared, with some kind of significant agreement set in advance that will give all parties involved something to boast about, a face-to-face meeting can turn into an embarrassment for all concerned, which is what happened in 2010. Presumably, Kerry understands this, and won’t do it if there is a risk it could blow up in face.
NETANYAHU CALLS PA REFUSAL TO RECOGNIZE ISRAEL INCITEMENT
Meanwhile, most of Israel’s cabinet agreed Sunday that the minimum necessary conditions for continuing negotiations with the Palestinians may not be present.
Netanyahu began the meeting by citing persistent Palestinian incitement against Israel.
“First and foremost, we see continued opposition to recognition of Israel as the Jewish state,” he said. He insisted that Palestinians must recognize Israel’s special status as a homeland and refuge for Jews fleeing oppression anywhere in the world, or to transform it into a binational Arab-Jewish state.
Netanyahu called continued Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s Jewish character “incitement, [which] unfortunately, continues. We have seen aspects of this recently. We are not foreigners in Yerushalayim, we are not foreigners in Beit El, we are not foreigners in Chevron.”
EDUCATION IS THE KEY TO LASTING PEACE
In his presentation to the cabinet, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon declared that peace cannot be achieved until the PA educates its children to accept peace with Israel.
“A basic element in Israeli education is the aspiration for peace. In the Palestinian Authority, that doesn’t exist. The first stage of the  road map, which obligates the PA to stop the incitement and to educate for peace, did not happen. Yitzchak Rabin demanded in the Oslo Accords that the Palestinian charter also be changed to eliminate incitement, and it hasn’t been changed to this very day either,” Ya’alon said.
“It all starts with education. . . The Palestinians receive money from states that donate to their educational institutions which still teach incitement and racism based on quotes from Adolf Hitler. They still claim there is no Jewish people,” he said.
The report to the cabinet presented by Intelligence Minister Steinitz included a review of the portrayal of Israel in the Palestinian media since the peace talks resumed last July. The message continues to be that Israel has no right to exist, that the Jewish people have no claim to the land of Israel, that Israel’s disappearance is inevitable and imminent, that Jews are sub-human creatures that must be dealt with accordingly, and that all kinds of resistance to Israel, including terror, are legitimate means of achieving the goal of Israel’s destruction.
Steinitz later repeated the same presentation for reporters from the international media. He said that even if all of the other issues between the two sides can be resolved, if they keep poisoning the minds of Palestinian children with deep hatred for Israel and the Jewish people, no signed agreement will be able to bring peace, and will become, instead, just be a piece of paper.
With the exception of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz, who is a member of Livni’s small political party, the entire cabinet endorsed the views expressed by Netanyahu and Ya’alon.
Livni, who, as Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister was a staunch opponent of West Bank settlements, said that Palestinian incitement against Israel only proves the need to reach a peace agreement in order to separate the two peoples. “It’s a difficult reality, but it is not a reason to stop working toward an agreement,” Livni said. “Palestinian incitement is a threat. It’s terrible to teach children to hate. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to act and create a solution, not just grumble over our fate, and complain that they hate and incite against us.”
Livni argued that only after the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved with a peace agreement will it be possible to properly address the problem of incitement. “The conflict will not be solved by adopting the narrative of one side over the other, or deciding who is more correct. The conflict will only be solved by an agreement, with mutual recognition. Then it will be possible to demand that a culture of peace be upheld, and that incitement be prevented.”
In the cabinet debate, Netanyahu rejected Livni’s argument and reiterated that, “real peace cannot come without an end to incitement against Israel, or education for peace. Palestinian unwillingness to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people — that’s the root of the conflict. It’s also the reason that we are demanding significant security arrangements, so that we will be able to defend ourselves, on our own, in any situation.”
Kerry has reportedly pressed Abbas to concede the point and recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but the PA leader has repeatedly rejected the demand, saying it would compromise the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s Arab minority.