Kerry, after a 30-minute phone conversation with Netanyahu, said he had reminded the Israeli leader of U.S. policy that “all settlements . . . are illegitimate.”
“He has specifically agreed not to disturb what might be the potential for peace going forward,” Kerry said.
After investing months and considerable prestige in arranging the talks, Kerry seemed to be bending over backward to ensure that the initial round begins as scheduled in Jerusalem. “There are realities within life in Israel that also have to be taken into account,” he said, apparently referring to strong opposition to peace negotiations within Netanyahu’s shaky political coalition. “Abbas understood that coming into these talks.”
Although some Palestinian leaders have urged Abbas to cancel the Wednesday session between high-level negotiators, Kerry said that “he is committed to continue to come to this negotiation.” Kerry said he expected to speak directly to Abbas later Tuesday.
The issue of Israel’s West Bank settlements has interfered with a number of previous peace efforts, with new construction announcements frequently coming on the eve of talks. Kerry has pressed both sides to avoid provocative steps and to concentrate on the final status of borders, with a nine-month deadline to reach agreement.
“If you resolve the borders,” he said Tuesday, “you have resolved any questions about settlements, because then you know what is in Israel and what is not.”
Since Sunday, after earlier agreeing at Kerry’s urging to release 104 longtime Palestinian prisoners, Israel has announced plans for up to 3,000 new housing units on the West Bank. Some of the plans, with only preliminary local approval, are a long way from construction. Others are projects that the government approved before the current round of peace talks were arranged. In both cases, the United States has concluded that Netanyahu has not violated his agreement with Kerry and the Palestinians.
Late Tuesday, Israeli authorities put 26 Palestinian prisoners on windowless buses to be delivered to their homes and supporters in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Arrested between 1985 and 2001, all were serving long sentences for murdering or attempting to kill Israeli citizens, tourists, security guards and suspected Palestinian collaborators.
In the West Bank Palestinian village of Azmout, the parents of Mohammed Sawalha were dressed in white wedding finery, anticipating the release of their son and his cousin Hosni, who were both 17 when they carried out a lethal knife attack on an Israeli bus in 1990.