John Kerry has announced that Israeli and Palestinian officials will travel to Washington as early as next week to hammer out the basis for fresh peace talks between the two sides.
Speaking in the Jordanian capital, Amman, the US Secretary of State said that marathon diplomatic effort, which included a flying visit to the Palestinian administrative capital Ramallah earlier in the day, had partially succeeded. Mr Kerry told reporters that the two sides had “reached an agreement that establishes a basis for direct final status negotiations,” but he added that a deal is “still in the process of being formalised”.
Asked whether participation in the Washington talks would be considered the start of negotiations, the first between the two sides since 2010, one official said: “That would be the start of direct talks between the parties. Yes.”
It is believed that Tzipi Livni, the Israeli cabinet minister with responsibility for the moribund peace process, and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian’s chief peace negotiator would travel to the US capital next week. There was no guarantee that the two sides would meet face-to-face so soon, however. “If everything goes as expected,” Mr Kerry said, Israeli and Palestinians negotiators will hold initial talks “within the next week or so.”
The breakthrough comes after a frantic day of negotiations when America’s top diplomat first held talks with Mr Erekat, before making an impromptu trip to Ramallah last night for last minute discussions with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Mr Kerry is set to keep the details of any eventual talks as secret. “The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private,” he said. “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead. Today, however, I am hopeful.” This is his sixth trip to the region since March.
There is a clear acceptance that any talks will be lengthy and laborious. “We are talking about months, both to ensure the process is substantive and comprehensive, and to get us past September,” one official told the Reuters news agency.
The Palestinians have been adamant that any direct talks take place on the basis that two states will be based on the 1967 lines, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza. The other issues likely to prove difficult include the status of Palestinian prisoners serving sentences in Israeli jails, and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which quickly proved the undoing of the 2010. Settlements are considered illegal under international law. On Wednesday, Israel gave its final approval for the construction of more than 700 new settlement homes in Modi’in Ilit.
Mr Kerry will laud the Washington talks as a diplomatic coup, but both the Israelis and Palestinians will face significant opposition at home. The tense discussions between the PLO executive committee are testament to the amount of opposition among leading Palestinian policy makers, many of whom complain that Israeli settlement building continues unabated in the West Bank.
At the same time, right-wing elements within the Israeli cabinet have warned that they will bring down Mr Netanyahu’s coalition if he enters into talks with Palestinian officials.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party and Israel’s economy minister, said he would not be part of any government that negotiated on 1967 lines. “Bayit Yehudi [the Hebrew name for the Jewish Home party] under my leadership will not be a partner, even for a second, in a government that agrees to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines,” he said. “Our capital Jerusalem is not and never will be negotiated.”
Both sides claim that Jerusalem as their capital. East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied Palestinian territory by the international community, and the vast majority of countries maintain an embassy in Tel Aviv, rather than Jerusalem.
The final status of Jerusalem is one of the longstanding contentious issues that Mr Kerry hopes the two sides will resolve in any future negotiations.
Beyond Mr Kerry’s comments in Amman, Israeli and Palestinian officials declined to comment.