Kerry Announces 'Basis' for Restarting Mideast Talks

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AMMAN, Jordan -- Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to take steps toward resuming formal peace negotiations, after an intensive round of American shuttle diplomacy "established a basis" for the first direct talks in three years, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday.

The preliminary agreement is the first incremental success for the Obama administration in trying to broker a Middle East peace agreement after an attempt at the outset of President Obama's first term ended in acrimony.

After multiple meetings with both parties in recent weeks, Mr. Kerry, speaking after a session here in Amman, said that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, had made courageous decisions and he was "hopeful" that talks would resume.

Mr. Kerry said that if "everything goes as expected," senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would join him in Washington within the next week or so to begin initial talks. They would make a further announcement at that time.

There was no indication that either the Israelis or Palestinians had compromised on core issues -- such as ending Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank or allowing Palestinians to claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state -- that have sunk previous negotiations. Rather, this round of diplomacy was very preliminary, aimed at getting the parties back into negotiating face to face.

But after years of stalemate in which the prospects of creating side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states seemed to fade, even as a goal of American and regional diplomacy, the resumption of a peace process marks a shift in politics-as-usual in the region.

Mr. Kerry said that the two sides had agreed that only he would make statements about the peace process until then. The diplomats to meet in Washington are Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator; Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister, who is in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians; and Isaac Molho, an aide to Mr. Netanyahu.

"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," Mr. Kerry said. "This is a significant and welcome step forward.

"The agreement is still in the process of being formalized, so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now."

Mr. Kerry made the remarks after returning to Amman, the capital of Jordan, from Ramallah, in the West Bank, where he held his third meeting in four days with Mr. Abbas.

He had looked upbeat as he greeted Mr. Abbas. "Mr. President, you should look happy," Mr. Kerry said. He was accompanied by his Middle East adviser, Frank Lowenstein, and Mr. Abbas by Mr. Erekat.

Before visiting Ramallah, Mr. Kerry spent two hours in two sessions in Amman with Mr. Erekat, who brought him concerns expressed by leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization in a late-night conclave on Thursday.

"They did not reach final agreement on the core elements of the deal until this afternoon," a senior State Department official said.

Though Mr. Kerry and a team of diplomats and businessmen have spent months fine-tuning a broad package of economic incentives, security assurances and political gestures in hopes of bringing the two sides to the negotiating table, the border question seems to be among the major sticking points.

Mr. Abbas has for years insisted that any new talks be conducted on the basis of Israel's borders before it seized Arab territories in the 1967 war, with minor adjustments. Mr. Netanyahu has just as steadfastly refused.

To skirt that apparent stalemate, Mr. Kerry's team has tried to come up with a new framework, according to American, Israeli and Palestinian officials who have been involved in the process.

One possibility, they said, is that the United States will invite the two sides to the talks on the basis of the 1967 prewar borders and the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, though Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas would not explicitly endorse those terms and might even oppose them while agreeing to negotiate.

Mr. Kerry's ideas on how to approach economic, security and political issues won the backing Wednesday of a group of Arab League foreign ministers, but he has not yet convinced the P.L.O. leadership.

After a stormy two-hour meeting here Thursday afternoon, several participants said it was "not enough."

Mr. Erekat's main objection, according to a Palestinian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation, was that "clarifications are needed on Israeli acceptance of the 1967 border."

A spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu declined to discuss the diplomacy on Friday. A leading lawmaker from his Likud Party, Tzachi Hanegbi, said in an interview on Israel Radio that "Israel can never return to the 1967 borders," in which Jerusalem was divided, but that once negotiations start, "we must discuss everything."

"We reject Palestinian dictates as preconditions for being willing to hold a dialogue with us," Mr. Hanegbi said. "The Americans, it seems, understand the logic of this, and that is why their main efforts are invested in the Palestinians." He described the current situation as "the classic model of a tango," adding, "One step forward, two steps back."

While Mr. Kerry continued his shuttle diplomacy in his sixth visit to the region since March, the European Union proceeded with its planned publication of new guidelines banning the financing of or cooperation with institutions located in territories Israel seized in 1967, despite an intense Israeli effort against it. European and Israeli officials said they would work together to clarify the new guidelines before they come into effect Jan. 1.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, said in a statement that the rules "reiterate a long-held position" regarding Israeli activity in the territories -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem -- but that the European Union would "recognize changes made to the borders once agreed to by both parties."

An American official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, had described the European Union move as "unhelpful." Ms. Ashton rebutted criticism that the timing of the guidelines could undermine Mr. Kerry's initiative, saying the union "fully supports" it.

Mr. Netanyahu has objected vigorously to the European Union's move.

President Obama spoke by phone with Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday. According to a statement released by the White House, the two leaders discussed developments in Egypt, Iran and Syria.

"The president encouraged Prime Minister Netanyahu to continue to work with Secretary Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible," the White House statement said.

Michael R. Gordon reported from Amman, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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