Washington (AFP) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hurtles into 2014 with a trip to the Middle East Wednesday, hoping to make this the year Israel and the Palestinians seal a long-elusive peace deal.
Waving aside skeptics, the top diplomat will embark on his 10th tour to Israel and the West Bank 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.
After months of intense, secretive talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, 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,” according to the same official.
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.
But the deadline is looming, and despite Israel’s release on Tuesday of a third tranche of Palestinian prisoners, there have been little signs of progress amid growing pessimism Kerry’s push will just join the long litany of failed U.S. peace efforts.
U.S. officials cautioned they were not expecting any breakthroughs on this trip, which comes just as Abbas threatened to take legal and diplomatic action to halt Israeli settlement building.
Speaking in Ramallah late Tuesday, Abbas said: “We will not remain patient as the settlement cancer spreads, especially in [east] Jerusalem.”
“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,” the State Department official conceded, asking to remain anonymous.
“It’s both the building and the planning that creates a great deal of heartburn,” the official added, reiterating the U.S. position that settlements are illegitimate.
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 Palestinian refugees.
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 U.S. official said.
Also at stake is the question of Israel’s security, as the Jewish state insists on maintaining a presence in the Jordan Valley under any peace deal, something vigorously opposed by the Palestinians.
Kerry will have to quell tensions after an Israeli ministerial committee on Sunday gave initial approval to a bill annexing Jordan Valley settlements, in a largely symbolic move expected to be shot down by the government.
But the 70-year-old former senator has proved persistent and stubborn in his efforts, earning grudging respect from the White House during his first months in the job.
In 2013 he also helped broker a deal with Russia to rid Syria of its chemical weapons by June, and an interim accord to rein in Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
Kerry’s team has had to persuade the globe-trotter to take a break over the Christmas holidays, the U.S. official revealed.
“There’s one thing for certain: He has need for speed and he has a sense of urgency… a real sense of the need to strike while the iron is hot,” he added.