Kerry presses Israel and Palestinians for concessions to ease the way for peace talks

April 7, 2013

Beginning a tentative round of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State John F. Kerry is asking for small concessions from both Israel and the Palestinians to smooth the way for new talks, U.S. and other officials said Sunday.

Kerry first visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has resisted new talks for most of the past four years. His government had sought to file a complaint against Israel with the International Criminal Court over home-building in Jerusalem but put the plan on hold shortly before Kerry arrived.

Kerry was expected to ask Abbas to drop or suspend the complaint as a way to build confidence among Israeli leaders that talks can be fruitful, Arab officials said.

The Palestinian Authority denied that the suspension of the complaint was related to Kerry’s visit, but the issue clouded the prospect for talks Kerry hopes to shepherd soon.

Israel’s apology last month for a botched raid that killed several Turks on an aid ship helped clear the air among potential Arab backers for any new peace proposal. Other initial Israeli concessions are possible, U.S. and other officials said, although they would not provide details.

Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the preliminary diplomacy.

A senior State Department official said that Kerry and Abbas talked about “how to create a positive climate for negotiations” and that Kerry asked for the “specifics to be kept in the room in order to keep moving forward.”

Kerry was scheduled to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem on Monday and Tuesday.

Israeli and Palestinian officials have said they expect an intensive two or more months of U.S. work to prepare for formal talks. The Obama administration is trying to lower expectations, but President Obama’s trip to Israel last month heralded the new U.S. push.

“As we know, no peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination, the willingness to speak out to overcome years of mistrust and of bloodshed, and this moment is no different,” Kerry said earlier Sunday in Istanbul.

Turkey, he said, will play a significant role.

Israel and Turkey must stick to their agreement to end a nearly three-year estrangement as a building block for wider Middle East peacemaking, Kerry said Sunday.

Kerry did not sugarcoat concern that politics in Turkey could delay or derail the deal struck last month among Obama and the volatile leaders of the two key U.S. allies. Kerry added stops in Turkey and Israel to an unrelated trip to shore up that agreement.

“We say again: We would like to see this relationship that is important to stability in the Middle East, critical to the peace process itself, we would like to see this relationship get back on track in its full measure,” Kerry said after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Kerry addressed the crowing tone of some commentary in Turkey after an apology by Israel for the deaths in 2010 of nine Turks aboard an aid ship that was part of a flotilla trying to break the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

“The foreign minister has expressed very clearly to me, in response to an inquiry by me, that they have taken steps to try to prevent any kind of sense of triumphalism,” Kerry said.

Davutoglu said little about the agreement but said that Turkey would press its view that Israel’s embargo on Gaza must end. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he plans to visit Gaza despite Israeli objections.

Days after Erdogan’s unusual three-way phone call with Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Turkish prime minister gave an interview that U.S. officials described privately as smug.

Kerry’s last trip to Turkey several weeks ago was dominated by a flap over Erdogan’s comments denigrating Zionism.

U.S. officials see the Turkey­-Israel rapprochement as a key to gaining Muslim and Arab support for new talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kerry’s trip was overshadowed by the death of the first U.S. diplomat killed in Afghanistan since the start of the war there in 2001.

The secretary’s voice broke as he described Anne Smedinghoff, a promising 25-year-old Foreign Service adviser assigned to assist Kerry when he visited Kabul two weeks ago.

The death rekindles a politicized debate over security for diplomats in conflict zones ahead of Kerry’s appearances before congressional committees this month and next. Although the subject is the State Department budget, much of the questioning is expected to focus on the deaths of two diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, last year.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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