Kerry in Middle East in bid to revive faltering Israeli-Palestinian talks

Settlements, recognition of Israel as 'Jewish state' remain obstacles, but secretary of state says deal not impossible

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a meeting at Netanyahu's office Thursday.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel Thursday in his latest bid to re-energize negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials, which have been complicated by the issue of Israeli settlements and insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel "as the nation-state of the Jewish people," as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Kerry, who is making his 10th visit to the region in less than a year, has faced fierce opposition from both sides to any compromise on mostly irreconcilable demands since he kick-started direct negotiations in July after a three-year hiatus. The negotiations aim to achieve a political settlement to the decades-long conflict based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Kerry's visit comes as Palestinian and Israeli leaders are accusing each other of lacking serious commitment to achieve a lasting peace

Netanyahu told Kerry on Thursday that there were growing doubts in Israel that Palestinians were committed to peace. The sides have sounded far apart this week on the questions of borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides as their capital. 

The Palestinians want borders based on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem. But Israel wants to hold onto existing settlements it has built inside occupied Palestinian territory since then.

Nevertheless, Kerry said that a resolution between Israel and the Palestinians was not "mission impossible."

Borders at issue

"The 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders," the newspaper Haaretz quoted Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin as saying, suggesting that any such move would lead to the destruction of Israel. 

Under any deal, Israel wants to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley, where the West Bank borders Jordan, while the Palestinians reject this demand, instead seeking to have an international force stationed there to guarantee security.

On Thursday, a senior Israeli Cabinet minister and more than a dozen hawkish legislators poured cement at a construction site in a settlement in the Jordan Valley, in what they said was a message to Kerry that Israel will never relinquish the strategic area.

Jordan Valley settlers number several thousand in 21 communities, a fraction of the nearly 600,000 Israelis who have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since 1967.

On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas renewed a call for all Israeli settlers and soldiers within the 1967 lines to be evacuated, saying he would not hesitate to reject a bad deal. 

"We will say yes to any ideas suggested to us which meet our rights," Abbas said in a speech. "But we will not fear and will not hesitate for a moment ... to say no, whatever the pressure, to any proposal which detracts from or doesn't fulfill the higher national interests of our people."

No breakthrough expected

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, a senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry was not expecting a breakthrough during his latest visit. The official, who declined to be named, said an eventual framework accord would act as a guideline for reaching a full peace treaty by the end of April. 

Separately, a State Department official told Agence France-Presse before the visit that Israel's settlement expansion had created difficulties in the negotiations, and reiterated Washington's position that the settlements are illegitimate. Israeli media reported Thursday that Netanyahu would postpone the expected announcement of some 1,400 new settler homes until after Kerry's departure on Sunday. 

Another sticking point is Netanyahu's push that the Palestinians recognize Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people." Palestinians argue that such a recognition would mean dropping the demand for a right of return and also forfeiting the rights of Israel's 1.7 million Arab citizens. The Palestinians have already recognized the state of Israel and believe that is sufficient.

"Israel also wants us to accept its narrative of history and to give up our narrative, culture and history," former Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Ishtayeh told reporters last month.

Analysts have said Abbas would find it hard to make such a concession up front without any actual gains in negotiations. For now, he is talking tough; he informed President Barack Obama in a recent letter that recognition of a "Jewish state" is one of his red lines.

Meanwhile, human rights groups, including the Israeli nongovernmental organization Breaking the Silence, have reported a rise in Israeli military training exercises being held in Palestinian towns and villages.

Israel was condemned by the groups Thursday, after reports of soldiers taking up positions in the homes of Palestinians during mock raids in the occupied West Bank and of Palestinians being detained for hours without explanation.

"I'm not sure, as an Israeli, I would agree that somebody would do it in my street, to raid my house as part of a training," Shai Davidovitch of Breaking the Silence told Al Jazeera. "That's why I think it's wrong."

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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