Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Israel for his 10th visit to Israel since March 2013 and the first of 2014 on Jan. 1, 2014 determined on creating a peace agreement framework between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite whirlwind meetings with Israel leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian leaders and leaders in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Kerry returned to the U.S. on Monday, Jan. 6 without a framework in hand, while Israel announced additional building in the West Bank settlements. At this point there have been 20 peace talks meetings between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Secretary Kerry's main purpose for his 10th visit to Israel and the Middle East is create the framework for a peace deal and get both Israeli and Palestinians to agree to it. The framework according to the State Department is a "a basis upon which one could negotiate the final peace treaty because the outlines or the guidelines for what the final deal would look like would be agreed upon, and then you would work intensively to fill out the details."
Kerry met with Netanyahu on Thursday, Jan. 2 for five hours at the David Citadel Hotel, where they also had a working dinner, they then met on Friday, Jan. 3 again, Kerry also met on Friday with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman before his second meeting the Prime Minister. Kerry also spoke to "American students at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem" on Friday, Jan. 5 where he said; "I am a believer in the possibility… we could achieve something, but it will be very, very difficult."
According to an Israel official Netanyahu during his meeting with Kerry discussed the possibility of a long term lease of the settlement areas in Judea and Samaria (Shomron), whereas the land would technically be given to the Palestinians, but Israelis would be allowed to remain in their homes and communities instead of being evicted. It is an idea that Palestinians are against and refused since they do not want any Jews to remain in a future Palestinian state.
Netanyahu and Kerry held their press conference prior to their first meeting, where they both seemed at the opposite spectrum as to the progress or lack thereof in the peace negotiations. According to Haaretz Netanyahu does not like being pushed into a difficult place where he faces both pressure in opposite directions from Kerry and his cabinet about any peace deal.
PM Netanyahu speaking first condemned Palestinian reactions to the release of the third batch of prisoners released on Dec. 30, 2013, where Palestinians convicted of terrorism and murder where welcomed home as heroes. Netanyahu outraged stated; "Unfortunately, given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders, there's growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace. A few days ago in Ramallah, president Abbas embraced terrorists as heroes... How can he say that he stands against terrorism when he embraces the perpetrators of terrorism and glorifies them as heroes?"
Netanyahu also expressed concern about the rise in Palestinian terrorism recently stating; "In the six months since the start of peace negotiations, the Palestinian Authority continues its unabated incitement against the state of Israel. This Palestinian Government incitement is rampant."
Netanyahu reiterated some of the basic demands Israel has for a deal to proceed; "Peace means ending incitement; it means fighting terrorism and condemning terrorism; it means recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; it means meeting Israel's security needs; and it means being prepared to truly end the conflict once and for all." And that above all he has to make sure any deal guarantees Israel's defense and security; "I'm determined above all else to defend my people and my state, and I will never compromise on the security of Israel and its citizens and on the vital interests that protect our future."
The Secretary of State in his remarks assured Netanyahu that Israel's security remains the utmost concern and the U.S remains "committed" to Israel, stating; "Israel's security concerns are uppermost in my mind…. The commitment of the United States to Israel is ironclad. We know that Israel has to be strong to make peace. And we also know that peace will make Israel stronger not just with its near neighbors, but throughout the world."
Kerry however, remains eternally optimistic that a peace deal is close at hand; "I plan to work with both sides more intensely in these next days to narrow the differences on a framework that will provide the agreed guidelines for permanent status negotiations. An agreed framework would be a significant breakthrough. It would address all of the core issues. It would create the fixed, defined parameters by which the parties would then know where they are going and what the end result can be. It would address all of the core issues that we have been addressing since day one, including borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and the end of conflict and of all claims."
Also in Israel, were Republican Senators John McCain, R-AZ, Lindsey Graham, R-SC, and John Barrasso, R-WY who also met with Netanyahu after Kerry on Friday afternoon, Jan. 3. The Republicans have doubts about Kerry's direction in the peace process and his ability to make an agreement that addresses Israel's best interests and security. In a press conference after their meeting with the Prime Minister on Friday Jan. 3, McCain expressed that; "Netanyahu has serious, serious concerns about the plan as it has been presented to him, whether it be on the ability of Israel to defend its borders, on the reliability of a Palestinian state ... and particularly on the overall security. We also are very concerned."
In his meeting with Foreign Minister Liberman of the Israel Beytenu party, Kerry and his "Israeli counterpart" spoke of his proposal for Israel's border in the peace agreement. Liberman wants to exchange the "triangle region southeast of Haifa" where there are cities primarily Wadi-Ara with heavy concentration of 300,000 Israeli Arabs for the Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to keep the settlements while decreasing the population of Arabs in the country. Liberman believes Israeli Arabs "live in some kind of schizophrenia, they don't know if they are Israeli citizens or if they are Palestinians."
Liberman's idea faces opposition from Israeli leadership and from the cabinet. President Shimon Peres on Wednesday rejected the idea of a population transfer as "impractical," adding that "Israel cannot take away its citizens' citizenship simply because they're Arab." While Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar stated on Tuesday, Jan. 7 that "An Israeli citizen is not an object and not transferable as part of a framework political agreement." Netanyahu has not commented the proposal, but in the past opposed citizenship transfers.
Liberman has also been the coalition's most enthusiastic supporter of Kerry plans calling "Kerry's peace deal as 'best we can get;'" to the UK's Telegraph. Liberman supports Kerry's efforts elaborating; "the best proposal we can get and we really appreciate the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry. He has really put a lot of energy into the issue." Liberman speaking at the Foreign Ministry’s Ambassadors Conference on Sunday, Jan. 5 stated; "Any alternative proposals brought forward by the international community will suit us much less."
On Friday, Jan. 3 and continuing on Saturday Jan. 4, 2014 Kerry also held meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank. Part of discussions revolved around including the return of 80,000 Palestinian refugees to Israel, a concept that Israel would never agree on and for a major part because it would alter the Jewish character of the state, which is part of the reason the demand. Abbas wants in total 200,000 refugees to flood Israel, part of their demand for "Right of Return." Netanyahu opposes the concept and does not agree with Kerry's push, as does Foreign Minister Liberman.
Kerry also made surprise visits to Saudi Arabia and Jordan looking for support from Arab allies for his peace framework and to brief them as to the progress. According to a PA official Kerry is looking to Jordan to take control of Jerusalem's holy sites in the old city so they would be under neither Israeli nor Palestinian control if East Jerusalem is given to the Palestinians. However, some other reports suggested Kerry wants the holy sites under international management.
Secretary Kerry met with King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Amman, Jordan, the State Department announced the reason for the on-hour meeting was to "seek their counsel on the discussion with the Israelis and Palestinians about a framework for final status negotiations."
Kerry had a then a "very productive" meeting with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, after the meeting Kerry expressed; "Today, His Majesty was not just encouraging, but supported our efforts and hopes that we can be successful in the days ahead and believes that this is important for the region and that there are great benefits that will come to everybody if we're able to be successful."
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister said that a peace deal that meets the Palestinians demands and supposedly pushes Israel back to the 1949 borders and guarantees the right of return to Palestinians "will receive the full support of Saudi Arabia." Those were the terms of the Saudi Arabia authored 2002 Arab League peace initiative, terms Israel will never agree to even if no peace deal will be made. Kerry after his meeting stated; "Saudi Arabia's initiative holds out the prospect that if the parties could arrive at a peaceful resolution, you could instantaneously have peace between the 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations, all of whom have said they will recognize Israel if peace is achieved."
Prior to returning home on Monday, Jan, 6 Kerry met with Israel's official opposition leader new Labor Party head Yitzhak Herzog, where the Secretary of State indicated that both Netanyahu and Abbas have made "concessions" furthering the chance that a framework peace agreement would be made by March. Herzog stated afterwards; "I stressed that we see the utmost importance in the security arrangements that will ensure Israel's ability to protect her citizens and the prevention of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory." Kerry also met Monday with Tony Blair the "special envoy for the Quartet of Regional Peacemakers."
Just hours before Kerry left Israel announced on Sunday, Jan. 5 the construction of an additional 272 homes in the West Bank, particularly "250 homes at Ofra and 22 at Karnei Shomron." Israel had planned to announce the building plans simultaneously with the third prison release on Dec. 30, 2013, but instead decided to wait until after Kerry's departure. Supposedly these new constructions were originally planned in October.
According to an Israeli official Kerry is focusing on dividing Israel; "Kerry's recent ideas focus on handing over parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinian National Authority and that Jordan will have the jurisdiction on holy sites and places in the city," and "gaps are still wide concerning the permanent status issues of the refugees, Jerusalem, borders, settlements and the Jewish state."
On Friday, Jan. 3 Kerry stated that "Every day (is) progress," and Sunday, Jan. 5 during his press conference in Jerusalem said that his trip was "a productive couple of days with very, very intensive talks," and that Abbas and Netanyahu had made "important… and courageous decisions, difficult decisions." Kerry also reiterated the Obama administration commitment to forging a peace deal; "I can guarantee all parties that President (Barack) Obama and I are committed to putting forward ideas that are fair, that are balanced, and that improve the security of all the people of this region."
A day after the Secretary of State left the region U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro revealed to Israeli radio on Tuesday, Jan. 7; the Kerry will have in the next month the framework ready to present to both sides; "I hope he will return in another month so Washington can present both sides a proposal for a framework agreement."
Both Kerry and the State Department is less sure when there a formal written framework ready to present. On Sunday, Jan. 5 Kerry told the press; "The path is becoming clearer, the puzzle is becoming more defined, and it is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are and what the options are with respect to those choices. 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."
While a State Department official stated on Monday, Jan. 6 during Kerry's plane trip returning to the U.S. that "There's a lot of work that needs to happen, a lot of tough decisions that need to be made. At some point there will be a document with the ideas from both parties, but we're not going to make a prediction of when that will be."
- Secretary of State John Kerry's Remarks With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Before Their Meeting, Jan. 2, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network,
a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.