JERUSALEM — A full and final peace agreement overcoming the obstacles that have foiled past negotiators is still possible within the nine-month calendar set for U.S.-brokered talks, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday.
“We’re not talking at this point about any shifts,” Kerry said, following two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The goal remains a complete deal this spring that settles borders of an independent Palestinian state and resolves other long-standing issues in the six-decade conflict, Kerry said before leaving Israel for Vietnam.
He rejected the persistent speculation, fed by remarks President Obama delivered to an Israeli-American forum last weekend, that the United States would settle for a partial or interim agreement and a continuation of talks.
“Our goal remains as it always has been — for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final status agreement,” Kerry said during a news conference at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. He said both sides remain committed to staying at the bargaining table for a deal due in April.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed, when dormant peace negotiations resumed last summer, that they would continually talk for nine months. Kerry said the tight deadline would encourage serious discussion and discourage hedging by both sides.
“The core framework, if you want to call it that, which we are discussing with respect to this, centers on the critical issues,” Kerry said. He ticked them off: “Borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and an end to conflict and to all claims.” The list includes the old major obstacles to peace, along with some newer issues that are part of the current talks.
There are no tangible signs of progress as talks reach the halfway mark, though Kerry claims they continue in good faith. He acknowledged during a visit last week that Palestinians see “difficulties” in the talks, an understatement for the sometimes vitriolic claims by Palestinians that Israelis are single-mindedly focused on security — and that Kerry is enabling them.
Kerry’s quick return visit was complicated by a rare blizzard across the Middle East that dumped almost two feet of snow on Jerusalem and Ramallah.
This was Kerry’s second attempt in as many weeks to sell U.S.-drafted security proposals for the West Bank, the Israeli-occupied territory that would form the bulk of a future independent Palestinian state. Those proposals are meant to address Israeli concerns about terrorism as well as the Palestinian demand for sovereignty, Kerry said, without giving details.
“We had some in-depth focus on the issue particularly of security, and also some of the other critical issues with respect to the Palestinian Authority,” Kerry reported.
The talks have taken place mostly in secret, and exact details of the ideas put forth by retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen are not known with certainty. Israeli defense experts say Allen’s proposals include permitting a limited number of Israeli troops to remain for some years in the sensitive Jordan Valley and for Israel to keep its early warning systems and other technology in place to monitor the border from inside a future Palestinian state.
“We have a major interest in being able to make certain that both Palestinians and Israelis, when they reach final status, have the ability to be able to deal with their mutual security interests and their independent security interests,” Kerry said. “The United States is committed to both.”
Allen accompanied Kerry to Abbas’s West Bank headquarters Thursday night. Allen, a former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is acting as a special security adviser for the U.S.-led effort. His initial presentation last week appeared to make little headway.
As a marker that the talks are on track, Kerry said the next scheduled Israeli release of 26 Palestinian prisoners will take place Dec. 29 as planned. The phased release of 104 long-held prisoners is one of the terms Kerry helped apply to build confidence on both sides that the talks are worthwhile.
Gearan reported from Washington.