OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a gloomy assessment of peace prospects with the Palestinians Thursday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began his 10th visit to the region in pursuit of an agreement.
“There is growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace,” Netanyahu said, speaking with Kerry at his side and accusing Palestinian officials of orchestrating a campaign of “unabated incitement” against Israel.
In the days before Kerry’s latest trip to Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders have likewise accused Israel of trying to sabotage the talks aimed at ending their decades-old conflict.
Kerry focused his remarks on a continued U.S. push toward a final peace agreement, which Washington hopes to achieve by April, and his shorter-term pursuit of a framework deal that would pave the way for a permanent accord.
He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders were nearing the point, or were already at it, where they would have to make tough decisions, and he pledged to work with both sides more intensely to try to narrow differences on a framework agreement.
Guidelines in such an accord would address core issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, security, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, Kerry said.
“It would create the fixed, defined parameters by which the parties would then know where they are going and what the end result can be,” he said.
“This will take time and it will take compromise from both sides, but an agreed framework would be a significant breakthrough.”
On key issues in the conflict, leaders from both sides have sounded far apart this week.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin Thursday rejected a Palestinian state based on the lines predating the 1967 war, in which Israel captured and illegally occupied Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“The Jordan Valley must be under Israeli sovereignty forever,” he said, referring to the border area with Jordan, from which Palestinians want a full Israeli withdrawal.
Interior Minister Gideon Saar and more than a dozen hawkish legislators poured cement at a construction site in a settlement in the Jordan Valley Thursday, in what they said was a message to Kerry that Israel would never relinquish the strategic area.
Virtually all of the politicians were either members of Netanyahu’s Likud or other parties in his coalition. Their visit to the isolated community of Gitit highlighted the political backlash Netanyahu would face if he agrees to leave the valley in a peace deal.
The valley runs along the eastern edge of the West Bank, abutting Jordan, and its fate is expected to be one of the key issues raised during Kerry’s meetings in coming days.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday renewed a call for all Israeli settlers and soldiers within the lands captured in 1967 to be withdrawn, saying he would not hesitate to reject a bad deal.
“We will say ‘yes’ to any ideas suggested to us which meet our rights. But we will not fear and will not hesitate for a moment … to say ‘no,’ whatever the pressure, to any proposal which detracts from or doesn’t fulfil the higher national interests of our people,” he said in a speech.
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat last month said a framework agreement could allow the talks to be continued for another year.
However, earlier this week, he said the U.S.-brokered talks were “failing,” and threatened to haul Israel before the International Criminal Court.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, a senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry was not expecting a breakthrough during his latest visit, when he will also meet with Abbas.
Kerry said Thursday he did not intend to impose U.S. ideas, but to “facilitate the parties’ own efforts.”
He arrived in Tel Aviv as an 85-year-old Palestinian died after inhaling tear gas fired by the Israeli army.
He is the first Palestinian casualty of the conflict with Israel in 2014 following clashes with soldiers on the outskirts of Kufr Qaddoum village near Nablus.
An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that a clash had occurred.
“Last night, a violent riot took place in the village of Qaddoum in which Palestinian residents hurled rocks at security forces, who responded with riot dispersal means,” she said.
Villagers told Reuters that the soldiers fired dozens of tear gas canisters at them, one of which entered Saeed Jaser Ali’s home. He was taken to a hospital, where he died early Thursday.
The Israeli military is investigating the incident.
In a separate incident, a Palestinian teenager was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers near the border fence in the northern Gaza Strip, sources on both sides said.
Ashraf al-Qudra, a spokesman for the emergency services in Gaza, told AFP soldiers shot a 16-year-old in the leg east of Jabalia.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli army confirmed the shooting incident.