Media Mention of ATFP in - April 4, 2013 - 12:00am

Secretary of State John Kerry will head to the Middle East this weekend to encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to follow up on President Obama's recent call for the two sides to restart peace talks.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that Kerry will visit Turkey, Israel and Ramallah, West Bank. He will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, she said.

The visit is a chance to figure out what Israeli and Palestinian leaders "think is possible," Nuland said.

"Secretary Kerry believes in personal diplomacy, sitting with leaders and listening to them, but it's also to make clear that the parties themselves need to want to sit down," she said. "That's a decision they have to make and they have to realize that both sides are going to have make compromises."

She said Kerry is bringing no specific proposals. He had planned to leave Monday for meetings in London and then South Korea, China and Japan. But he moved up his departure to Saturday to stop in the Middle East.

"We're still at this 'let's see what's possible' stage," Nuland said of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When Kerry meets Netanyahu and Abbas, she said he will "encourage them to be open, creative and build compromises, to increase confidence and create that environment so we can continue to help them."

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, says what the two sides need to do first is figure out how to return to the negotiating table.

"If it sounds silly, it's because of how difficult the situation became in the past few years," Ibish said.

An agreement signed last weekend between Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah on the future administration of Muslim and Christian religious sites in Jerusalem could create an opportunity, Ibish said. While the details are still murky, the agreement assigns Jordan a direct role in protecting Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem's Holy Basin. Jordan relinquished all rights to Jerusalem and the West Bank when it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, but the Palestinian Authority can invite it to administer territory it hopes to control in the future, Ibish said.

The agreement extends to holy sites and not all of East Jerusalem, which Abbas says he wants as the capital of a future Palestinian state. It is an acknowledgement by the Palestinians that they need help maintaining their claim on Jerusalem, Ibish said.

"They're boxed in with respect to Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem, in the sense they feel a lack of leverage with the Israelis partly because of changes on the ground and the asymmetry of power," Ibish said, referring to Israeli construction that is cutting off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. "The Israeli position is that while Jerusalem is part of the final status subjects, Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel."

Israel and Jordan have had good relations since the 1994 peace treaty. Bringing Jordan into the mix "adds another dimension" that could benefit Jordan's status in the Middle East, and help broker a deal that both sides can live with, Ibish said.

"It may be impossible for Palestinians to accept an agreement that doesn't include Jerusalem, but it could be impossible to get the Israelis to accept a deal that does," he said. "This is a way to say that when it comes to the holy Muslim and Christian sites that are important to the Arab world, a simple formula of uncontested eternal Israeli sovereignty over the whole thing isn't a practical way of ending of the conflict."

Kerry could also seek an agreement, even an unspoken tacit one, on settlements and security that would improve future conditions for talks, Ibish said.

Israel could agree to restrict settlement building to major blocks and avoid settlements that Palestinians object to most of all, such as far-flung settlements that span important north-south highways in the West Bank and construction in the E-1 zone that Palestinians say would cut off East Jerusalem from a future Palestinian state.

Such an agreement "would allow for natural growth but stop them (Israelis) from changing the strategic issue, not make it harder to make a deal," Ibish said.

What Kerry needs to look for, Ibish said, "apart from getting both sides to the table, is a series of confidence building measures, changes on the ground, unilaterally by both parties, to make the other side feel better about conditions."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017