Kerry aims for Israel-Palestine peace accord in 9 months

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Flanked by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the United States will play the role of facilitator in final status talks between the parties that he hopes will lead to an agreement in nine months.

“The parties agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues, are all on the table for negotiation,” Kerry told journalists at a press appearance with Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saab Erekat at the State Department Tuesday.

“And they are on the table with one simple goal,” Kerry continued. “Our objective is to achieve a final status agreement over the course of next nine months.”

Describing the atmosphere in two days of talks as “constructive, positive,” Kerry said the parties had agreed to “remain engaged in sustained, continuous and substantive meetings” on the core issues over the next nine months, beginning with a meeting in two weeks in either Israel or the West Bank.

The United States will play the role of facilitator in the process, Kerry said. State Department officials said newly appointed U.S. peace envoy Martin Indyk will be spending much time on the ground in the region, going back and forth.

Kerry spoke after President Obama met briefly with the two teams Tuesday morning. The White House stressed its support for Kerry’s effort, after some reports suggested the president was keeping the peace effort, seen as a long shot, at arms-length.

Kerry meantime heaped praise on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for giving another go to the peace process after a series of failed efforts over the past two decades.

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Kerry names Indyk peace envoy, calls for reasonable compromise

Secretary of State John Kerry, as expected, named veteran diplomat Martin Indyk his new special peace envoy, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams arrived in Washington Monday to begin direct talks for the first time in three years.

Indyk, 62, a former US envoy to Israel and Clinton peace negotiator, “knows what has worked and he knows what hasn’t worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department Monday. “Ambassador Indyk is realistic. He understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not come easily and it will not happen overnight.”

“But he also understands that there is now a path forward and we must follow that path with urgency,” Kerry said.

Kerry called on the parties to be willing to make “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues,” the Associated Press reported. “I think reasonable compromises have to be a keystone of all of this effort.”

President Obama, in a statement Monday, praised the choice of Indyk, but also sounded a sober note about prospects for a breakthrough.

“The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination,” Obama said in a statement Monday.

An Arab diplomat, speaking not for attribution in an interview to Al-Monitor Monday, praised the pick of Indyk for negotiator, saying he is trusted by all sides, and, importantly, sees the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a wider, regional context.

The Australian-born Indyk, currently vice president of the Brookings Institution, previously served as US envoy to Israel and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs. He helped found the think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Brookings said Monday he was taking a leave of absence effective immediately to take up his new duties as Special Envoy.

Indyk was recently engaged to Gahl Burt, vice chair of the American Academy in Berlin and former social secretary to Nancy Reagan, diplomatic sources and Indyk associates said.

Longtime Kerry staffer Frank Lowenstein will serve as deputy special envoy, Kerry said.

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Peace talks to get underway, Kerry names Indyk envoy

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will resume in Washington Monday after a three year hiatus, the State Department announced.

Secretary of State John Kerry will host Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at an Iftar dinner Monday night following informal talks this afternoon at the State Department. Talks are scheduled to continue on Tuesday.

At 11am, Kerry is expected to announce that he has appointed former Clinton Israel envoy and Near East diplomat Martin Indyk as his lead negotiator, as Al-Monitor first reported was under consideration.

The Israelis will be represented in the talks this week by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho, and the Palestinians by Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, the State Department said in a statement.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would release 103 Palestinian prisoners over the duration of talks, which will last a minimum of nine months, he said. His cabinet voted in favor of the prisoner release, as well as to put any prospective peace agreement reached with the Palestinians to a referendum.

“This moment is not easy for me,” Netanyahu said in a statement to his cabinet Sunday. “It is not easy especially for the…bereaved families, whose heart I understand. But there are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country and this is one of those moments.”

Secretary Kerry, in his invitation to Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday, praised them for their courage. “Both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to make difficult decisions that have been instrumental in getting to this point,” Kerry said, according to the State Department’s Jen Psaki. “We are grateful for their leadership.”

(Top Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, May 23, 2013 Photo: Courtesy – Israel GPO. Second photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted by Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat in the Jordanian capital Amman on June 29, 2013. Jacquelyn Martin / AFP / Getty Images.)

Kerry meets Syria opposition

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking ahead of a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders Thursday, said the United States and Russia remain committed to holding a Syria peace conference “as soon as possible.”

“There is no military solution to Syria,” Kerry said in remarks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on the Great Lakes region Thursday. “There is only a political solution, and that will require leadership in order to bring people to the table.”

Kerry said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, and they reaffirmed their agreement to bring Syrian regime and opposition representatives together for transition talks in Geneva when feasible. “We remain committed to the effort to bring the parties to a Geneva 2 to implement Geneva 1, and we will try our hardest to make that happen as soon as is possible.”

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are delaying the Geneva conference, as well as differences between Washington and Moscow including over who should attend.

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Shortlists: Higginbottom mulled for 2nd DepSecState; Tom Shannon after Brazil

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry are considering nominating State Department counselor and former OMB deputy director Heather Higginbottom as the next Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, several current and former U.S. officials say. The second Deputy Secretary slot, currently vacant, was previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, now Treasury Secretary.

“Kerry recruited Heather from OMB with an eye towards putting her in a confirm-able position soon, but he didn’t want to delay her arrival by several months during his transition period,” an administration official, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Wednesday.

“She started out with the confidence of the Secretary and the President and hit the ground running as Counselor, engaging with senior leaders at the State Department,” the official said. “I think it’s safe to say that this would be a hit across the board given her budget experience and relationships and her understanding now of the Department.”

Higginbottom served in the Obama White House as deputy director of OMB from 2011 to 2013, and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 2009-2010. She previously served as legislative director for then Senator Kerry from 1999 until 2007, and on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She didn’t respond to a query Wednesday.

Tom Shannon After Brazil

With his successor nominated, US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is heading back to Washington soon. While his next interim assignment is unclear, some current and former U.S. officials tell the Back Channel that the Obama administration is considering nominating Shannon to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, possibly in the fall or in 2014. Sources cautioned however that plans could change depending on other moves afoot in the upper ranks of the State Department bureaucracy.

Shannon said he expects to head next to Washington, but couldn’t comment beyond that. President Obama recently nominated Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Liliana Ayalde, a former ambassador to Paraguay and senior USAID official, to succeed him in Brazil.

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Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

The National Security Council's top advisor on Iran and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar is expected to be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, two US officials tell Al-Monitor, although a third official said the nomination announcement is not imminent.

Talwar did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Tuesday.

A former Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for the Middle East under then Chairman Joseph Biden, and one of Biden’s closets foreign policy advisors, Talwar has served as the NSS senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states since the beginning of Obama’s first term, during which time Vice President Biden has served as the Obama administration’s point-man on Iraq.

Talwar has also been deeply engaged on US Iran policy and participated in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as a senior member of the U.S. negotiating team.

The State Department political military affairs chief job, currently headed by acting Assistant Secretary Tom Kelly since the departure of Andrew Shapiro, involves decisions on U.S. arms sales and security assistance issues. Talwar has long worked on the region that accounts for the lion’s share of US arms sales and military assistance, especially in recent years, one official noted.

It’s not entirely clear who might succeed Talwar as NSS senior director for Iran and the Gulf if the nomination proceeds. But sources say new US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been a bit frustrated that several appointments were made by her predecessor Tom Donilon shortly before he left, and she would like to bring in some people who have more NSC experience.

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Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said. Continue reading

Kerry may tap Indyk as peace envoy

Former US ambassador to Israel and Clinton Near East envoy Martin Indyk may take a lead role in helping US Secretary of State John Kerry conduct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, although an official cautioned that a decision has not been finalized.

Indyk, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, did not respond to a query Saturday. Gail Chalef, a spokesperson for Brookings, said Sunday that Indyk was away for the weekend and they declined to comment.

The decision on an envoy or negotiator has not been finalized, an official said Sunday, suggesting that a team of people would be assembled.

“No decision on a negotiator or envoy has been made,” a person familiar with the deliberations said. “The first step was getting the parties back to the table, and now Kerry will determine the right combination of players to work with the parties, knowing it's going to be a slog and that he can't carry it on his own shoulders day in and day out.”

The Back Channel previously reported that former Bill Clinton Middle East advisor Rob Malley may join the State Department Near East bureau, and may also play a role in Kerry's negotiating team.

Kerry announced Friday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would come to Washington in the next week or so after he was able to reach agreement with the parties on a basis to resume negotiations.

The details on the talks would be kept under wraps, Kerry said, given the fragility and political sensitivities of the process. “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead,” he said.

The parties had agreed to stay in negotiations for a minimum of six months, the New York Times reported Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that he believes it is a vital strategic interest of Israel to pursue negotiations at this time, given the threat posed by Iran and to counter the prospect of a bi-national single state.

Resumed diplomacy “is important in and of itself in order to try and bring about the conclusion of the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday. “And it is important in light of the strategic challenges that are before us, mainly from Iran and Syria.”

(Photo: Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat and Martin Indyk, vice president for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar in June 2013. From the Brookings Foreign Policy program Facebook page.)

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Kerry says agreement for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to resume

Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would come to Washington next week to begin peace talks, but said that details for resumed negotiations remain to be finalized.

“On behalf of president Obama, I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Kerry said in a press conference in Amman Friday, at the end of his sixth trip this year to the Middle East to try to get the parties back to the peace table for the first time in three years. “This is a significant and and welcome step forward.”

Kerry said he will continue to keep the details of the discussions with the parties under wraps given the sensitivity and fragility of the basis for final status peace negotiations.

“The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private,” Kerry said. “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead. Today, however, I am hopeful.”

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israeli negotiator Itzhak Molho, and Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat are expected to represent the parties at talks in Washington in the next week or so, Kerry said.

Kerry spoke to reporters in Amman after extending his trip to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the West Bank.

After his press conference, Kerry and his entourage boarded his flight to return to Washington. When Kerry entered the plane, his staff burst into applause, Bloomberg's Nicole Gaouette reported.

The parties, however, expressed ambivalence at the prospective talks–and the consequences of their potential breakdown. The Obama administration launched high-profile Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2010, only to have them collapse a few weeks later after Israel refused to extend a one-year partial freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. Continue reading

Signs of progress in Kerry peace bid

Signs of progress?

The State Department released this photo of Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today in Ramallah, amid reports Friday suggesting  Kerry may be on the verge of announcing agreement on relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Kerry extended his trip to the region Friday to meet with Abbas to see if he could overcome obstacles to resuming negotiations.

Kerry's helicopter ride from Amman to the West Bank capital was delayed two hours while he made phone calls to Israeli, Palestinian and US officials Friday, the New York Times reported.

The holdup is borders, analysts suggested.

“The biggest short term issue is at what point is Bibi actually going to be able to present a map,” one US Middle East analyst told the Back Channel Friday when it looked like Kerry may return to Washington without final agreement on resumed talks. “Once he does, does he have a coalition. It’s understandable the Palestinians are skeptical about that, and want that to be part of any formulation.”

But signs from Ramallah Friday were that the meeting with Abbas was going well, according to Israeli media reports. Israel Channel 2 reporter Ehud Yaari, citing Israeli officials, reported Friday that Kerry was on the verge of announcing agreement on relaunching talks.

Stay tuned.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before a meeting in Ramallah, West Bank, on July 19, 2013. State Department photo/ Public Domain.)

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