AMMAN – Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have laid the groundwork to resume peace talks frozen for three years and will meet in Washington within “the next week or so,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday.
After a day of dramatic diplomacy and a late afternoon helicopter dash to the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, Kerry announced a hard-won breakthrough to get the two sides back to the negotiating table.
Both Israel and the Palestinian presidency welcomed the development, but the Islamist Hamas movement that controls the Gaza Strip rejected a return to talks.
Kerry’s announcement came after he spent four days consulting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders from a hotel in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
“I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he told reporters in Amman just minutes before boarding a plane to fly home.
“This is a significant and welcome step forward,” he added, having doggedly pushed the two sides to agree to resume negotiations in six intense trips to the Middle East since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in February.
But after a day in which the deal almost slipped away, forcing Kerry to spend hours working the phones, he cautioned he would remain tight-lipped about the details.
“I think all of us know that candid, private conversations are the very best way to preserve the time and the space for progress and understanding when you face difficult, complicated issues such as Middle East peace,” he said. “The agreement is still in the process of being formalized, so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now.”
A U.S. Department of State official said, “They (the Israelis and Palestinians) have agreed on the core elements that will allow direct talks to begin.”
The two sides remain far apart on final status issues, including the borders of a future Palestinian state, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem, which both camps want as their capital.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also has repeatedly called for a freeze on Israeli settlement building and a release of Palestinian prisoners — demands the Israelis have rejected.
Kerry said he will meet with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, in Washington “to begin initial talks within the next week or so.”
A spokesman for the Palestinian presidency, Nabil Abu Rudeina, hailed Friday’s development, saying, “Abbas’s meeting with Kerry in his headquarters in Ramallah on Friday evening achieved progress, and will facilitate an agreement on the basis of a resumption of talks.” But in the Gaza Strip, Hamas said it “considers the Palestinian (National) Authority’s return to negotiations with the occupation to be at odds with the national consensus.” The militant group’s spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Abbas has no legitimate right to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people.
But Livni, who also serves as Israel’s justice minister, was optimistic. “These were long months of skepticism and cynicism. But now, four years of diplomatic stagnation are about to end,” she said. “Alongside the opportunity, I also know that the moment negotiations start, they will be complex and not easy.”
Kerry’s last-minute, whirlwind diplomacy came after the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on Thursday rejected his proposals for a framework to guide the relaunch of peace talks and called for changes to the U.S. plan.
Talks have stuttered and started for decades in the elusive bid to reach a final peace deal between the Arab world and Israel. But they collapsed completely in September 2010, when Israel refused to maintain a freeze on settlement building in Palestinian territories.
In his brief comments, Kerry praised the courage of Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Jordan’s King Abdullah II for hosting the push for peace. “No one believes the long-standing differences between the parties will be resolved overnight or just wiped away. We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead,” he said.