by MATTHEW LEE and MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
---- — AMMAN, Jordan — After a rush of last-minute talks with Palestinian officials, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sealed a step toward relaunching the long-halted Mideast peace process, announcing yesterday that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed on a basis for returning to negotiations.
The statement, which came in a press conference after a day in which Kerry shuttled between the Jordanian capital and the West Bank, reflected how painstakingly incremental movement in the process is. While it appeared deep differences over the groundwork of talks had been bridged, the two sides are to meet — likely in the coming week — to work out final details on actually resuming their negotiations on the toughest issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Up to the last minute, the Palestinians had been reluctant to sign on to Kerry’s formula for returning to the table with the Israelis, five years after talks broke down.
Late Thursday, the Palestinian leadership said it was sticking by its demand that any negotiations on final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state be based on the cease-fire line that held from 1949 until the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Israel rejects preconditions on the talks.
Kerry held extended talks yesterday morning with top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in Amman, then spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kerry then flew by helicopter to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah, although his departure was delayed by nearly three hours.
Returning to Amman, Kerry told reporters, “We have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.” He added, “This is a significant and welcome step forward.”
Still, he said “the agreement is still in the process of being formalized” and the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators — Tzipi Livni and Erekat — would hold initial talks in Washington “within the next week or so.”
Kerry would not give details on the agreement on the negotiations’ basis. “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.”
Kerry has made winning a resumption of Mideast peace talks a priority, and this was his sixth visit to the region as secretary of state. He has been in the region since Monday, meeting in person with Abbas three times over the course of the week. By contrast, he did not see Netanyahu in person at all, but spoke to him numerous times by phone.
Netanyahu’s office said it would not immediately comment on Kerry’s announcement.
Hoping to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks, President Barack Obama asked Netanyahu to work with Kerry “to resume negotiations with Palestinians as soon as possible,” according to a statement released by the White House late Thursday.
Final status negotiations aim to reach a deal on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and security arrangements. Talks ground to a halt five years ago, and previous efforts to revive them have stalled, particularly over Palestinian demands that Israel announce a freeze in construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which they claim as part of a future state along with Gaza. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and it is now ruled by the Hamas militant group, which rivals Abbas’ Palestinian Authority.
Thursday night, the Palestinian leadership did not repeat the settlement freeze demand. But officials said they wanted guarantees the 1967 lines would be the basis for talks, saying that if Israel accepts that, it would make most of the settlements illegitimate.
Kerry’s announcement suggested that the issue had been resolved. In a statement issued after Kerry spoke, Abbas said “lengthy talks ... have resulted in the Palestinians accepting the resumption of talks.”
Abbas said “some details still need to be worked out,” but that Israeli and Palestinian officials could be invited to Washington for talks in the coming days.
One question still unanswered is whether the tentative agreement reached by Kerry involved Israel explicitly accepting a reference to the 1967 lines — or if it involves the U.S. acting as guarantor that they will be the basis for negotiations.
Previous Israeli governments twice negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines, with talks focusing on land exchanges. But besides disagreeing over how much land to trade and where, the two sides hit logjams on other key issues, including dividing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Netanyahu has given lukewarm endorsement to the idea of a Palestinian state but has not delineated his vision of boundaries, while demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Palestinians reject that, concerned that it would undermine their claims that millions of refugees and their descendants have the right to return to their original homes, lost in the 1948-49 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Israel has rejected that claim outright.
While Kerry has not publicized details of his plan, an Arab League decision Wednesday to endorse his proposal raised speculation that the Palestinians would agree. Abbas traditionally has sought the blessing of his Arab brethren before making any major diplomatic initiative.
Ahmed Majdalani, a Palestinian leader, said Kerry has proposed holding talks for six to nine months focusing on the key issues of borders and security arrangements.
He said Kerry would endorse the 1967 lines as the starting point of negotiations and assured the Palestinians that Israel would free some 350 prisoners gradually in the coming months. The prisoners would include some 100 men that Israel convicted of crimes committed before interim peace accords were signed in 1993. Israel has balked at freeing these prisoners in the past because many were convicted in deadly attacks.