John Kerry tries to revive Middle East peace talks

Israel will postpone announcing settlement expansions until after Kerry leaves the region, but the continued growth is but one of many major sticking points in peace negotiations.

Brendan Smialowski/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry is back in the Middle East today to sketch out a framework for final status talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, but with an Israeli announcement of settlement expansion imminent, skepticism about a commitment to peace is sky high.

In a positive but small gesture, Israel will postpone the official announcement of expansion until after Mr. Kerry leaves the region. Similar past pronouncements have been timed to coincide with visits by US leaders (in 2010, Israel enraged the US when it announced 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was there.)

The New York Times notes that the most recent settlement announcements were timed to coincide with the release of Palestinian prisoners, which are meant to be a goodwill gesture to show that Israel is serious about peace talks:

More recently, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has made a point of tying settlement announcements to the release of Palestinian prisoners in an effort to appease his right-wing coalition members. Israel agreed to release 104 long-serving prisoners, many convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis, in four groups as part of an American-brokered deal to resume the peace talks. The Palestinians have been infuriated by the linkage between the releases and the announcements and Israeli suggestions that they agreed to such a deal.

The third prisoner release took place early Tuesday, and in the prelude Mr. Netanyahu came under intense international pressure not to upset the peace talks by making another simultaneous settlement announcement. But Mr. Netanyahu, apparently angered by a string of attacks on Israelis in the past few weeks and a lack of any condemnation of them by Palestinian leaders, decided to go ahead. A week ago, Israeli officials said that an announcement of new settlement building could be expected around the time of the prisoner release, without specifying exactly when.

But Israel has since backed off. "We will respect John Kerry and not act to spite him," an Israeli official told The New York Times, explaining that there was an "understanding" between Netanyahu and the housing ministry that there would be no announcement until after Kerry's departure. "A day here or there makes no difference," the official said. 

Settlement expansions are far from the only major sticking point in negotiations, which are intended to end in April. The borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and what will happen to Palestinian refugees all remain unaddressed, according to Agence-France Presse.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Gideon Saar, No. 2 in Netanyahu's Likud party, took Israeli lawmakers on a tour in the West Bank today that included a ceremony unveiling the cornerstone of a new neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Moshav Gitit. On the tour – "intended to send a message" to Kerry that "settlements must remain" –  he reiterated the Israeli right's insistence that any peace agreement include Israeli control of the valley.

"The [Israeli] military presence in the Jordan Valley needs to continue for generations, but it cannot continue without Jewish settlement. Wherever there are no Israeli towns, there is no army, and where there is no army, there is terrorism," Mr. Saar said at the ceremony.

The Times of Israel notes that there are 21 Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley, the first built less than a year after the 1967 war, in which Israel captured the West Bank. According to settler leaders, there are 7,000 Jews living in the area now, although other estimates say it is closer to 4,000.

Beyond concrete issues like borders there are deeper questions critical to the outcome of the talks, such as whether or not a peace deal must reconcile conflicting versions of the past, or whether it can allow each version some legitimacy and focus on paving a path forward.

The gulf between the two sides is a wide one, as The New York Times reports:

Polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research show that Palestinian support for such recognition has dropped over the past decade to a low of 40 percent last September, from a high of 65 percent.

“It seems the public differentiates between recognition of a fact (Israel has a Jewish majority) and recognition of a narrative (Israel has a right to a state for the Jewish people in historic Palestine),” Khalil Shikaki, the center’s director, said in an email. “Netanyahu’s conception requires the Palestinians to endorse a Zionist narrative, which they reject.”

But 73 percent of Israeli Jews supported Mr. Netanyahu’s demand, in 2010, that Palestinian recognition be a condition of an extension of a construction freeze in Israel’s West Bank settlements, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s Peace Index.

Rumblings of concern about the consequences of a failure in the latest round of peace talks were underscored today by the leaking of a Palestinian Authority internal document warning of a third intifada, The Times of Israel reports.

The document, whose contents were reported by the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Radio on Thursday morning, said that if the peace process collapsed, a violent uprising was likely to erupt in the West Bank. Jihadi and Salafi groups were also likely to become more active, possibly by setting up a network of terrorist cells with the intention of carrying out attacks against Israel, the report said.

The report, issued by a Palestinian security agency, also predicted more spontaneous terror attacks if peace talks fail. It recommended that Palestinian Authority security forces draft a plan to control protests if they escalate into riots in order to prevent police from joining the rioting, as had they did in the Second Intifada, which began in late 2000 and lasted several years.

The report predicted that Palestinian terror cells would begin transferring their activities into Area C and areas surrounding Jerusalem, where the presence of both Israeli and Palestinian security forces is meager.

The report also estimated that Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, might secretly renew its military activity in the West Bank if its rift with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party continued.

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