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Netanyahu & Kerry meet about peace talks in Jerusalem snow wonderland

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For the second time in a week and the ninth time since March 2013 United States Secretary of State John Kerry met in Israel with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a very unusually snowy Friday morning, Dec. 13, 2013 in Jerusalem about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. After of a shunned security proposal presented on Dec. 5, Kerry was looking for some other way to make advances towards a peace agreement, especially since the peace talks are stalled after 20 meetings that started this past July.

Netanyahu and Kerry were originally set to meet on Thursday, Dec. 12 but a freak snowstorm hitting the East Mediterranean area including Jerusalem and Northern Israel and brought flooding to other parts of Israel and the declaration of a state of emergency. On Friday, Dec. 13 Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv was closed for nearly an hour and the city later experienced a hail storm. Thousands are without power in Jerusalem and many drivers were stranded on the roads, and the city was on lockdown on Friday, and the citizens told to remain indoors. The storm started on Wednesday, Dec. 11 with the snow starting to fall on Thursday, Dec. 12 and going to last through the weekend. Kerry was supposed to have also meet with President Shimon Peres, but that meeting was entirely cancelled because of the weather for this trip.

Secretary Kerry met with Netanyahu at 6 A.M. in the morning along with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. The Secretary of State arrived in Jerusalem after a terrible trip by road from an also snow filled Ramallah, in the West Bank where Kerry met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday. The snowstorm was definitely a distraction to their meeting and their formal remarks to the press. The words exchanged in their remarks prior to their meeting were probably the most light hearted exchange they had recently, with some jokes exchanged about the natural wonder of a snowstorm.

Giving some brief remarks in Hebrew and English, Netanyahu stated; "Jerusalem was under siege once in antiquity. We're celebrating - we're commemorating that today. It's under a snow siege today, but we've always weathered these storms. And we've sought to reach better times, and this is our purpose here, too. I look forward to discussing with you how we can advance our goals of peace and security."

The Secretary of State turned 70 on Thursday, and could not help to also make some light comments on the snow, but also outlined the purpose of his short visit; Well, I've heard of making your guests welcome and feeling at home. This is about as far as I've ever seen anybody go, giving me a nice New England snow storm…. I wanted to come through here in an effort to try to continue our important discussions. And it's been constructive. It's always complicated, but I look forward to having some good talks this morning after meeting with President Abbas last night. We have a lot to talk about, and we will continue this process."

Last Thursday and Friday, Dec. 5 and 6, Kerry also visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority, having three meetings with Netanyahu, two on Thursday Dec. 5 and a second on Friday, Dec. 6 totaling 12 hours, and one with the Palestinian Authority on Thursday, Dec. 5 that lasted four hours. During those meetings the Secretary of State presented with U.S. General John Allen a security plan to both Israel and the Palestinians, which the general devised with the help of 160 experts. The plan would require that Israel Defense Forces IDF soldier maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley for 10 to 15 years after a peace agreement would be signed, with the border between the West Bank and Jordan itself remaining under Israeli control, additionally the U.S. would provide additional security technology. The Palestinians formally rejected the proposal, saying a NATO force and US soldiers be present in the region, but not Israeli soldiers.

Israel is insistent about maintaining a presence in the region to ensure the country's security, but are "not satisfied" with the proposal either. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon told army radio in an interview; "Even if the Americans are our friends we will tell them: Sorry, we are not going to do everything you want, we are not going to give up (security) principles which are essential for us, even if it means the negotiations won't move forward and there won't be a nice ceremony at the White House."

During his remarks after meeting with Kerry on Dec. 5, Netanyahu stressed the importance of Israel's security in any peace agreement, "I want to say that Israel is ready for historic peace, and it's a peace based on two states for two peoples. It's a peace that Israel can and must be able to defend itself, by itself, with our own forces against any foreseeable threat."

On Sunday, Dec. 8, Abbas made the Palestinians' position formally known to the American Consul General Michael Ratney in a meeting held in Jerusalem, stating it was "unequivocal." A Palestinian official declared; "The Americans have started talking about security arrangements that completely adopt the Israeli point of view, whether regarding the Jordan Valley, the border crossings, or the [West Bank's] airspace."

During his meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State on Thursday evening, Dec. 12, PA President Abbas formally "rejected" Kerry's "ideas" in the security proposal. Abbas also presented Kerry with a letter delineating "Palestinian red lines," and which also stated that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority refuses "to recognize Israel as a Jewish state." Israeli PM Netanyahu has been firm and reiterated numerous times, that recognizing Israel as the Jewish state is the bare minimum to create any peace agreement with the Palestinians, and has also been "the root of the conflict."

The meetings between Netanyahu and Kerry on Thursday Dec. 5 not only focused on the peace talks, but over the recent Geneva Interim Accords with Iran about their nuclear weapons program, which Netanyahu has called a "historic mistake," because it does dismantles the program, prevent uranium enrichment and it eases sanctions. The Israeli Prime Minister addressed Iran after meeting with Kerry; "First and foremost, we discussed the danger to the world posed by Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. We believe that in a final deal, unlike the interim deal, it's crucial to bring about a final agreement about determination of Iran's military and nuclear capability. I have expressed my concern since Geneva that the sanctions would begin to unravel, and I think steps must be taken to prevent further erosions of sanctions."

Although U.S. Israel relations have been strained over the peace talks and especially over the interim deal with Iran, Kerry meant to ease those tensions in his own remarks after the meeting Netanyahu on Thursday, Dec. 5. The Secretary of State declared; "I can't emphasize enough that Israel's security in this negotiation is at the top of our agenda. And the United States will do everything in our power to make certain that Iran's nuclear program of weaponization possibilities is terminated….. We agreed on what the goal of the final status agreement (with Iran) ought to be, and in the days ahead we will consult very closely and continuously with our Israeli friends in order to bring about a comprehensive agreement that can withstand everybody's test."

Speaking to the press at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv before leaving from Israel, on Dec. 6 Secretary Kerry told them that Israel and the Palestinians were close to a peace agreement; "I believe we are closer than we have been in years to bringing about the peace and the prosperity and the security that all of the people of this region deserve." Despite Kerry's hopes the peace talks are not progressing.

Kerry also expressed he was impressed by the leaders commitment to a peace agreement; "Despite the fact that we are discussing really difficult, complicated issues, I am encouraged by the continued commitment of both leaders to the pursuit of peace, and they both underscored their commitment to continue to work through these difficult issues in the days ahead. The naysayers are wrong to call peace in this region an impossible goal."

The Secretary of State again acknowledged the importance of security for Israel in any deal, which was the reason for the presented security proposal; "We've gone through a very detailed, lengthy, in-depth analysis of the security challenges of the region, and particularly the challenges to Israel and to the creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state. Security is paramount in the minds of the prime minister and his team with respect to their ability to be able to move forward with other issues that have to be dealt with. If Israel's security cannot be increased through this agreement, it's very difficult to make an agreement."

The peace talks were also a major point of discussion at the 10th annual Saban Forum hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brooking Institution in Washington, DC held Friday Dec. 6 through Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. This year's forum was entitled "Power Shifts: U.S.-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East."

Secretary of State Kerry spoke as the Saban Forum's keynote address on Saturday, Dec. 7. Kerry continued to remain positive in his speech saying "Peace is possible today" and "closer than ever" to a two state solution. Kerry also described the talks' goal is a "full agreement" that will "address all the core issues" and end up being a "full-on peace treaty." Kerry concluded; "We are convinced that the greatest security [for Israel] will actually come from a two-state solution that brings Israel lasting peace, shared prosperity throughout the region, good relations among neighbors, peace of mind for the people of Israel and for Palestinians alike. None of this is possible without addressing Israel's legitimate security concerns, and ensuring that as a result of peace, Israelis feel more secure, and are more secure, not less."

President Barack Obama was also positive about a peace deal within the nine-month period when he addressed the forum also on Saturday, Dec. 7 where Haim Saban conducted a Q&A with the President. Obama expressed; "I think it's possible in the next several months to arrive at a framework that does not address every single detail, but gets us to a point where everybody recognizes better to move forward than move backwards. I think that we're now at a place where we can achieve a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians are living side-by-side in peace and security, but it's going to require some very tough decisions."

Both Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Israeli PM Netanyahu were not as positive as Kerry and Obama about the peace talks' progress. Liberman who spoke on Friday, Dec. 6 explained; "To speak frankly. I don't believe it is possible in the next year to achieve [a] comprehensive solution, to achieve some breakthrough, but I think it's crucial to keep our dialogue, because we live in the same region, we're neighbors. It's important at least to think about coexistence."

Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke on Sunday, Dec. 8 to the Saban Forum about the peace talks with much less optimism, and declaring that any peace agreement would be a "cold peace" and require the Palestinians to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish State. Netanyahu told the audience through a video feed; "It is not too much to ask. It is the minimum requirement for peace. But it is not the only requirement. I don't delude myself. I think that any kind of peace we'll have is likely, initially, to be a cold peace and it must withstand the forces of terrorism and the ravaging forces of radicalism and all the forces backed by Iran and others that will try to unravel the peace."

Netanyahu in his remarks to the weekly Likud-Israel Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset on Monday, Dec. 9, debunked Kerry assertion about peace being close. Netanyahu told his fellow conservative leaning party members; "Only once Israel's terms are met will there be a peace deal. I would like to say something regarding the speculation about the coalition on the peace process. I want to clarify: Any deal, if one is reached, will be brought to a national referendum. What will decide whether a deal is reached is not one coalition's dictate or another, but the essence of the agreement. We are not standing before a permanent accord. We have a set of specific terms that have yet to be met in the negotiations. ... We are still not there, not even walking down that hall."

Netanyahu also insisted at the Likud faction meeting that any agreement will go to a referendum vote, stating; "I would like to say something regarding the speculation about the coalition on the peace process. I want to clarify: Any deal, if one is reached, will be brought to a national referendum. What will decide whether a deal is reached is not one coalition's dictate or another, but the essence of the agreement."

The United States and Secretary Kerry is concerned that that the peace talks will not come to an agreement before the May 2014 absolute deadline. Kerry's meeting with chief peace talks negotiators Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat and the U.S. envoy Martin Indyk on Monday, Dec. 9 in Washington, DC after the Suban Forum on the Middle East only caused more concern, because all sides said the talks were "frozen."

The U.S. has been looking into other options to move the talks along toward a permanent, not just an interim agreement and to extend the time period for the talks. They are considering a three way summit with Kerry, Netanyahu and Abbas.

The U.S. intends to present an agreement framework to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in January. The framework will touch on all issues and present the U.S. proposed solutions to them including borders and security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, it would contain "principles" not "specifics." It is considered a "logical step," and can also lead to adding time to the negations upward to a year to arrive at a final peace agreement.

In effort to pressure the PA and move the talks forward the U.S. wanted the third batch of Palestinian prisoners release to be postponed from the scheduled date of Dec. 29 and instead have the remaining two batches released at the end of January after the framework was presented, when Kerry being optimistic believes progress will be reported. The Palestinians including their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat rejected the notion, saying it will only stop not advance the talks, and they will continue as scheduled.

Secretary Kerry had hoped the meeting this week would help advance his push for a peace agreement however natural wonders and disasters cut the meetings short, since Kerry could not stay longer because he had to go on to Asia; Vietnam and the Philippines. It remains to be seen if the U.S. Secretary of State will make another trip to the region before the end of year to make up for this week's lost time.

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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.

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