John Kerry: 'Basis' reached for renewed Mideast talks; initial round in D.C.

On his sixth trip to Mideast in six months, John Kerry hailed 'significant ... step forward,' but said the Israeli and Palestinian agreement on the renewed peace talks were still 'being formalized.' 

Mandel Ngan/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at Queen Alia International Airport on Friday. Kerry says Israel and the Palestinians will meet soon in Washington to finalize an agreement on relaunching peace negotiations for the first time in five years.

Secretary of State John Kerry was determined not to return to Washington empty-handed from his sixth trip to the Middle East in six months, and it appears that determination has paid off.

A beaming Mr. Kerry announced in Amman Friday evening before heading home after four days in the region that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed on a “basis” for returning to peace talks on “final status” issues. The goal will be the formal ending of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Calling the development “a significant and welcome step forward,” Kerry nevertheless hinted at the half-step nature of his accomplishment with the few details he was willing to divulge: “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized,” he said, adding that if “everything goes as expected,” senior Israeli and Palestinian officials will travel to Washington for “initial talks within the next week or so.”

Kerry said that all sides had agreed that “we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now,” but that an additional announcement would be made after the initial Washington talks.

For those talks, Kerry will be joined by Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of the peace process with Palestinians, and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Isaac Molho, is also expected to take part.

Simply the ability to get the Israelis and Palestinians to agree to resume talks that have been stalled since 2010 – and which really haven’t been pursued seriously since 2008 – is itself a Herculean feat, some regional analysts say. But they caution that these talks, like others before them, will go nowhere if they remain for long what they are so far: the result of a particularly determined secretary of state.

“It is significant that, against long and formidable odds, and in a region that is so unsettled … John Kerry has managed to get Israelis and Palestinians to resume talks on … final status issues,” says Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat with extensive experience in the peace process who is now vice president for new initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“But what is clear is that Kerry has an enormous amount invested in this, he owns it,” Mr. Miller adds. “Ultimately it will go nowhere unless he can create a sense of ownership in the Israelis, in the Palestinians – and in his own president.”

Kerry’s blackout on the details of the agreement left uncertain how the chief US diplomat was able to bridge the differences between the two sides on two key issues: whether or not talks will proceed on the basis of borders that existed between the two sides before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (when Israel captured key territory including East Jerusalem), and Israeli settlement activity on Palestinian lands.

One possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian divide on the pre-1967 borders issue that was hinted at in recent days is that the US would invite the two parties to resume talks based on prewar borders – and based on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a key Israeli demand – without the two sides having formally signed on to those two starting points.

President Obama set the stage for that formula when he declared in May 2011 that the two sides should resume peace talks based on the 1967 prewar borders.

One of Kerry’s accomplishments this week was to win reaffirmation by the Arab League of its 2002 peace initiative with Israel, and its endorsement of a resumption of talks based on the 1967 borders – but with adjustments to be agreed upon by both sides in negotiations. Kerry described as a significant enticement for Israel the prospect of achieving peace not just with the Palestinians, but with more than 20 Arab countries.

Kerry urged Israel to “look hard at the [Arab] initiative, which promises Israel peace with 22 Arab nations and 35 Muslim nations – a total of 57 nations that are standing and waiting for the possibility of making peace with Israel.”

Still, the fuzziness of Kerry’s announcement on resumed talks is leading analysts to caution that negotiations won’t be able to get very far if terms aren’t defined relatively soon.

“It won’t have been lost on anyone that the basis [for the talks] has not yet been formulated,” says Miller. “The foundation for these negotiations needs to be set relatively soon and in a relatively coherent manner, otherwise they can’t be sustained.”

Advocates of resumed peace talks responded positively to Kerry’s announcement, but cautioned that efforts to reach a settlement of the decades-old conflict will face opposition from some on all sides.

“Now the hard work truly begins,” said the Israel Policy Forum, a New York-based pro-Israel organization that supports reaching a two-state solution. Asserting that “leaders on both sides will be tested, as will the United States’ resolve to see through negotiations to their successful fruition,” the group warned that “there will be many Palestinians and Israeli leaders, and many others, including in the US, who will be working hard to ensure these talks fail.”

And some Palestinian advocates said that Kerry’s “accomplishment” in jumpstarting talks may yet lead to more of the same – short-lived negotiations that do nothing to halt what they see as the nibbling away at Palestinian lands.

“After months of tireless effort, John Kerry has accomplished the tremendous task of getting the parties precisely back to the point they were at over five years ago when talks failed, only now with a more recalcitrant Israeli government,” says Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the pro-Palestinian Jerusalem Fund and Palestinian Center in Washington.

“Merely getting to talks is not a reason to celebrate if the talks are bound to fail,” he says, adding that they could end up “a reason for mourning” if they “only act as a cover for continued Israeli colonialism of Palestinian territory.”

The Wilson Center’s Miller also notes the planned presence at the initial talks in Washington of two Israeli officials, Minister Livni (who has threatened to pull her party out of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition if talks are not launched) and Netanyahu aide Molho. Both Israelis must be working from the same page, he says, or the initiative fails.

“Clearly if their positions are inconsistent, it’s not going to work,” Miller says.

But the key challenge ahead will be transforming what is so far an initiative willed into existence by Kerry into the project, even if a very painful one, of the two parties.

“Right now Kerry owns this in a way the others don’t,” Miller says. “It simply won’t be able to survive on that.”

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