NEW YORK — Israel and the Palestinians are talking again, but in the talkfest that is the United Nations General Assembly, there’s been little mention this week of how the new discussions are going.
That’s exactly the way Secretary of State John F. Kerry wants it, even though President Obama told the world body on Tuesday that pursuing a Middle East peace deal will be one of his main goals in the time he has remaining in office.
Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to intensify the talks, Kerry said Wednesday, adding that the U.S. role would also expand. He gave no details but said the willingness to deepen the dialogue arose from his discussions last week in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and this week with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We have agreed now to intensify these talks,” Kerry said at the United Nations. “And we have agreed that the American participation should be increased somewhat in order to try to help facilitate” discussions.
Kerry and other U.S. officials have spent weeks trying to ensure that the annual U.N. meeting would not become a forum for either side to undermine the fragile new talks, or for the Palestinian threat to seek further statehood credentials through the United Nations instead of through negotiations with Israel.
Abbas rebuffed the Obama administration last fall and pressed ahead with an initial attempt to bolster statehood credentials at the United Nations. More than 130 countries voted to give the Palestinians the status of an observer state, despite weeks of U.S. entreaties to allies and partners to vote no. The status is short of full membership, but it nonetheless underscored Palestinian frustration with stalled negotiations and continued Israeli settlement-building.
“I remain deeply committed, and the United States remains deeply committed, to bringing about a just and lasting peace to a conflict that has been going on too long,” Obama said before meeting with Abbas on Tuesday.
Obama praised Abbas for rejecting violence and pursuing peace, and he gave the rough outlines of the U.S. position on an acceptable deal.
“The border of Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed-to swaps,” Obama said, referring to territorial lines that existed before the 1967 Israeli-Arab war and the expectation that each side would alter those lines to accommodate some Israeli settlements and other developments.
The United States wants to see that “secure and recognized borders are established for both states with robust security provisions so that Israel retains the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threats,” Obama said.
Neither he nor Abbas said a word about the substance of talks that began over the summer and were expected to tackle major issues such as borders and Israeli security early on. Kerry has set an unofficial deadline of next spring to finish a deal.
Negotiators for each side have held several sessions, usually with American envoy Martin Indyk alongside. The U.S. role has been described as a go-between and prod to keep both sides at the table, but Indyk is also expected to offer U.S. proposals to bridge some of the toughest disagreements.
Kerry insisted through months of haggling about terms to begin talks earlier this year that details would not be released to anyone outside the small circle of envoys, and to the surprise of many the omerta has mostly stuck.
Kerry was holding several private meetings on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering intended to raise money from governments and the private sector to help the battered Palestinian economy, and to garner political support for his signature effort to finally settle terms for a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel.
At one such meeting Wednesday, according to text released by the State Department, Kerry said,“ . . . I will tell you that all of the issues are on the table: territory, security, refugees, Jerusalem — all of the final status issues are on the table. And importantly, we are not seeking an interim agreement; we are seeking a final status agreement.”
At a U.N. news conference Wednesday, Yuval Steinitz, Israeli minister of strategic and intelligence affairs, said a peace deal is in everyone’s interest.
“Most of the people of Israel will support such an agreement even if it will include difficult concessions on behalf of Israel on one condition,” Steinitz said: “that the people of Israel will be confident that what we get in return is genuine peace, a real end of the conflict,” and security.
Abbas addresses the United Nations on Thursday, and U.S. officials are holding their breath. He has agreed to shelve his U.N. bid for now, but is not likely to hold back on criticism of Israel.
He met with Obama and Kerry in New York, but some Palestinians had hoped for a White House invitation for Abbas this year. Netanyahu will see Obama in the Oval Office on Monday, a day ahead of his address next week as the closing speaker for the U.N. gathering.
The timing, which Israeli officials have said was not a deliberate attempt to avoid Abbas, removed any chance for a symbolic three-way meeting among top U.S., Palestinian and Israeli leaders at the United Nations.
“We have no illusions that peace will be easy or simple,” Abbas said at his meeting with Obama. “We have to overcome several difficulties, but we realize that peace in the Middle East is not just important for the Palestinians and Israelis, it’s important for the entire region and the world.” He spoke through an interpreter.