RAMALLAH, West Bank – Continuing a furious pace of shuttle diplomacy aimed at securing an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by spring, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry opened meetings Thursday in the Middle East on his ninth trip of the year to the region.
Concerned that a final status agreement may not be possible by the May target that the two sides accepted when they resumed talks in August, senior U.S. officials said Kerry was hoping for a framework accord that would contain the principles of a comprehensive pact, but not specific details. If such an outline could be achieved, the negotiations could be extended beyond the nine-month timeline originally set by Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the officials said.
The officials, who spoke to reporters aboard Kerry's plane on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly, stressed that an agreement on all issues — including security, borders of a future Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees — by May remains the goal. But, should that prove unworkable, they said a framework agreement would buy time for additional negotiations. Netanyahu and Abbas agreed after numerous rounds of meetings with Kerry to negotiate for a minimum of nine months.
A framework accord, the officials said, would be a "logical step" on the path to a final status agreement.
As rare, heavy snow fell on Israel and the Palestinian territories, Kerry met Thursday evening with Abbas in Ramallah. He is to see Netanyahu on Friday before heading to Jordan and then flying to Vietnam and the Philippines.
In Ramallah and Jerusalem, he will also follow up on elements of a West Bank security plan, ideas for which he unveiled on his most recent visit to the region just last week, and other points of potential progress. But his latest visit comes amid Palestinian unhappiness with the security plan and few, if any, tangible signs of progress.
Kerry, along with special U.S. Mideast peace envoy Martin Indyk, met separately and then together for about three hours Monday with chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, Psaki said. Livni and Erekat were in Washington for a Mideast conference in which President Barack Obama, Netanyahu and Kerry participated. Kerry also spoke Wednesday by phone with Netanyahu.
On Monday, though, top Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo said if Kerry finalized a framework accord, he would be breaking a promise to try to negotiate a final agreement in the current round of talks.
The Palestinians are concerned that a framework deal will accommodate very specific Israeli security demands while offering only vague promises to the Palestinians, Rabbo said.
Security arrangements between Israel and a future Palestine would be central to such a framework. Kerry has argued that progress in negotiations is only possible if Israeli security concerns are addressed first.
The security proposals presented last week to Abbas and Netanyahu include arrangements for the border between Jordan and a state of Palestine.
U.S. officials have refused to discuss details, but Palestinian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details of the negotiations, say they would give Israel final say at that border for at least 10 years and would also have a military presence in the strip of land next to it, the West Bank's Jordan Valley.
Israeli officials have said they fear militants and weapons could be smuggled into a future Palestine if Israel gives up control over the West Bank-Jordan border. Abbas has said he is willing to accept an international presence there, but not Israeli forces.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, but are willing to accept minor land swaps in drawing the final border to accommodate some of the settlements Israel has built on war-won land.
Netanyahu has refused to commit to what the Palestinians and most of the international community consider a basic ground rule — that border negotiations use the 1967 lines as a starting point.
In all, Israel has agreed to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four stages during the current negotiations, which began in late July and are to conclude in April. Israel has so far released two groups of prisoners.
Kerry wants the last two releases to be combined and be carried out in late January, instead of being done in two installments, the Palestinian officials said.