Peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is elusive as ever, but not for United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who begins 2014 with a trip to the Middle East on Wednesday, bringing along his never-ending hopes of securing peace.
This will be Kerry’s tenth visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority since he took office, aiming to hammer out a framework to guide the final tough months of talks.
After getting the two sides back to the negotiating table in 2013 after a three-year hiatus, Kerry was “starting the new year with a special effort to try to move the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward,” a senior State Department official said Tuesday, according to AFP.
According to the news agency, Kerry is hoping to set out an agreed framework that will establish a vision of what a final peace deal would look like.
It would provide “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,” the same official said.
Both sides have now held about 20 rounds of direct talks since they resumed negotiations in July, agreeing to keep talking until the end of April.
U.S. officials cautioned they were not expecting any breakthroughs on this trip, which comes hours after PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas threatened to take legal and diplomatic action to halt Israeli building in Judea and Samaria, which he termed a “cancer.”
Commenting on Abbas’s remarks, the State Department official told AFP, “The settlement activity that has been going on has created a lot of questions on the Palestinian side and in the international community about the intentions of the government of Israel.”
“It’s both the building and the planning that creates a great deal of heartburn,” the official added.
Kerry and his team, led by special envoy and former ambassador Martin Indyk, hope to have the framework in place soon, addressing all core issues including the contours of the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem claimed by both sides as a capital, and what will happen with the so-called “Palestinian refugees” that the PA wants to flood Israel with.
Having outlined “the areas of agreement between the parties and overlap, and the areas of disagreement,” Kerry was now seeking to test ideas to bridge the gaps.
The aim was for him “to climb with the two leaders to the top of the hill and be able to share with them the view of what’s on the other side, what peace will look like in terms of all of the core issues that have to be resolved,” the official told AFP.
Another point of contention in recent days has become the Jordan Valley, which is essential to Israel’s continued security.
Kerry is reportedly attempting to force a deal on Israel and the PA which would see an Israeli “withdrawal” from all of Judea and Samaria, but allow for a temporary arrangement whereby IDF and/or foreign forces would maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley.
The Israeli government argues the Valley is strategically important, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has insisted in the past that, in the event of a withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, Israel would still keep troops in the area.
Earlier this week, the Ministerial Committee on Legislation voted in favor of a bill that would see Israel annex the Jordan Valley. As expected, the PA reacted by expressing outrage, with Abbas declaring that an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley would be a “red line” as far as he is concerned.
In his comments, Abbas mirrored his words from Monday night during celebrations over the release of 26 terrorist murderers.
Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat also condemned the vote on Sunday, and went further on Monday in declaring that peace talks have failed and the PA should go to the UN unilaterally to seek statehood recognition