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Kerry trying to build support for new Israel peace talks

Israeli President Shimon Peres, right, shakes hands with Secretary of State John Kerry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu between them during the a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem on Monday. (Gali Tibbon/AP)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry worked Monday to build support for new Arab-Israeli peace talks that would establish an independent Palestinian state and settle many other old Mideast grievances.

The Obama administration hopes to prod Israel and the Palestinians to return to talks, and to use a comprehensive regional peace plan written a decade ago by Arab leaders as a template, U.S. and other officials said.

Israel has never agreed to the Arab League plan, and several of the countries that once signed it are now under new leadership. Putting it back on the table is meant to galvanize Arab support and draw in Muslim partner Turkey, but it is not clear how much of the original document could be a basis for new talks.

“Kerry asked us to change a few words in the Arab Peace Initiative but we refused,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Voice of Palestine radio station Sunday.

Kerry is trying to jump-start talks after a lull lasting most of the past four years. This is his third trip to the region in as many weeks.

The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative would exchange a comprehensive peace and a renunciation of further Arab land claims for an Israeli withdrawal from land it captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

It is widely assumed that the plan’s call for a return to the region’s 1967 borders would have to be modified to account for Israeli settlements close to the old line. Israel would presumably trade other land for that West Bank territory, in what past peace negotiators have called “agreed swaps.”

Arab officials have said that the United States wants to change the plan’s language on borders and to add more security commitments between Arab states and Israel.

Israel seized control of the West Bank in 1967, along with the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Egypt regained the Sinai in a 1982 deal with Israel. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

The Golan is a major question mark now. Past efforts to negotiate a deal with Syria failed, and Israel is unlikely to accept any deal with Syria while it is in the midst of a civil war. Israel also worries that the Golan border area of Syria will become, like Gaza, a launching pad for rocket or other attacks on Israel.

Kerry told reporters Monday that he and President Obama see a window for restarting a peace effort but have no illusions about the difficulties of trying.

“Time is running out on this possibility,” Kerry said.

Both he and Obama “think it would be irresponsible not to explore thoroughly the possibilities for moving forward,” he said.

Kerry said he is taking a deliberate, step-by-step approach of consulting with all sides, but he would not give details of anything he is asking Israel or the Palestinians to do. He said he will not be ruled by artificial deadlines or time limits for talks, something some past negotiations have tried to impose.

“Both sides have mistrust,” he said. “I am convinced we can break that down.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was headed to Qatar on Monday for an Arab League discussion about reviving the peace initiative. Diplomats from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were among those expected.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz greeted Kerry on Monday with an editorial praising his still-murky efforts.

“Israel’s government will be committing a crime against its citizens if it lets slip away the opportunity presented” by Kerry’s visit, the newspaper said.

U.S. officials have said almost nothing about what Kerry is trying to do, but Obama made clear during his visit to Israel last month that Kerry would be in charge of exploring a return to the oft-treaded ground of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Kerry went first to Ramallah, the West Bank set of the Palestinian Authority, for a lengthy meeting Sunday night with Abbas. He saw Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Shimon Peres on Monday. Kerry was seeing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for dinner on Monday.

He laid a red, white and blue wreath at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem on Monday, Israel’s national day of remembrance.

“It’s a great privilege for me to be able to be here now representing President Obama and the American people in this effort to try to get us across the line,” Kerry said during his meeting with Peres. “We all know it’s not easy, but as you said yourself, it can be done.

“I would say to everybody I have no illusions about the difficulties. We’ve seen them,” Kerry added. “But you have to believe in the possibilities to be able to get there. . . . I am convinced there is a road ahead.”

Peres acknowledged that an agreement was achievable.

“A belief in peace is possible, is needed, is real,” Peres said. “And peace is possible: I believe that the gaps between us and our Palestinian neighbors can be bridged, and I speak out of experience.”

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.


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