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MONDAY, 21 APR 2014
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Kerry: Mideast peace deal still due in April
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv December 13, 2013.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv December 13, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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TEL AVIV, Israel: Shrugging off gloomy predictions of failure, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that Israelis and Palestinians remained committed to peace talks and were on course to wrap up a full deal by April.

Speaking at the end of his second visit to the region in just a week, Kerry said the two sides were discussing a framework for a final-status accord to resolve the core issues at the heart of the decades-old conflict.

“Both parties remain committed to fulfilling their obligations to stay at the table and negotiate hard during the nine-month period that we set for that,” Kerry told reporters after separate talks with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. 

“We’re not talking at this point about any shifts [in the schedule],” he said, dismissing bleak assessments from both sides on progress in the U.S.-brokered negotiations, which resumed in July after a three-year pause.

The U.S. top diplomat wants the two camps to accept a so-called framework accord that will touch on all the main issues, such as security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees, and serve as a broad outline for the final deal.

Palestinians fear such a preliminary agreement could serve to delay once again their hopes of re-establishing an state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – land the Israelis occupied in the 1967 war.

Kerry said his talks over the past two days with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, played out against a backdrop of fierce winter snow storms, had focused on security.

Retired U.S. General John Allen was present with Kerry for the discussions with Abbas.

Palestinian sources said Allen, a former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, had drawn up plans to allow a continued Israeli military presence for the next 10 years in the Jordan Valley – along the eastern border of a Palestinian state.

“We are working on an approach that both guarantees Israel’s security and fully respects Palestinian sovereignty,” Kerry said, without giving further details.

Israel says its troops have to remain there to prevent arms and militants from entering the West Bank and launching attacks. 

In Tel Aviv daily Yediot Aharonot Thursday, former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland wrote that Israel saw a potential threat as not coming necessarily from the Palestinians, but from “other enemies” in the region.

“Israel insists on having contiguous control along the Jordan River, and it seems like the Americans accept this,” he wrote.

“The argument is not how long, but how deep. For Israel, in order for control to be effective, a strip five kilometers wide is necessary,” he added.

Abbas has rejected the idea of Israeli military presence for 10 years, but said he would accept seeing U.S. troops deployed along the border.

“President Abbas has rejected the ideas presented by the secretary of state,” a Palestinian source said Friday.

The Palestinians are concerned that a framework deal will accommodate very specific Israeli security demands while offering only vague promises to the Palestinians, and earlier this week 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.

Palestinian officials say Israeli security concerns are blocking the talks and have questioned whether Israel would press ahead with the third tranche of a planned release of Palestinian prisoners at the end of December.

 

Seen as a vital confidence-building measure, Israel has so far freed about half the 104 prisoners it had pledged to let out of its jails under a deal secured by Washington in July.

Kerry said the third tranche would go ahead on Dec. 29.

Kerry has made nine visits to the region since taking office in February as part of a relentless campaign to gain momentum and bridge a vast gulf of mutual mistrust.

“We remain hopeful that we can achieve that final-status agreement,” Kerry said. 

“Why? Because we are absolutely confident … that for both sides, and the region at large, peace can bring enormous benefits.”

The U.S. Secretary of State headed from Israel to Vietnam and the Philippines Friday.

 
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