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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Secretary Of State Kerry Travels To Israel To Broker Peace Talks

US Secretary of State John Kerry steps off the plane upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport January 2, 2014 near Tel Aviv, Israel. Kerry traveled to the Mideast for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials to finalize a framework to guide the final stages of a comprehensive Middle East peace agreement. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

US Secretary of State John Kerry steps off the plane upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport January 2, 2014 near Tel Aviv, Israel. He is there to broker peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

At least one senior Israeli cabinet minister and more than a dozen right-leaning politicians poured cement at a West Bank construction site today — a statement of protest on the first day of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Israel to broker peace talks aimed at creating a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

Though Kerry has kept the outline of his proposals under wraps, Kerry is expected to push for Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders and a halt to new Israeli settlements.

Palestinians will be asked, among other things, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Kerry is meeting in Jerusalem today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and tomorrow he’ll travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert, joins Here & Now’Robin Young to discuss the negotiations.

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

And I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW. In a few minutes, some American workers have to decide: give up some benefits and get a big job, or hold fast and lose the huge contract.

YOUNG: But first, Secretary of State John Kerry ended the first day of the latest round of Mideast peace talks by announcing that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is not mission impossible, which one supposes is better than nothing, and more encouraging than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statement that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas embraces terrorists as heroes.

The difficulty in the talks was also underscored today by more than a dozen right-leaning Israeli politicians pouring cement at a West Bank construction site, figuratively pouring cold water on the notion of halting Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar in the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

And Aaron, we're four months away from the U.S. target for a final peace settlement in the Mideast. Any indication of any movement?

AARON DAVID MILLER: Look, my own view is that the fact that John Kerry is considering presenting a framework agreement or even American ideas to bridge the gap suggests that there has been a narrowing of those gaps. I suspect, and I don't like predictions, but I'll make one anyway, that in the next couple months Kerry may actually get his piece of paper, a framework agreement.

The problem is, if the understandings reached really continue to generate wide gaps, then - on the core issues, then even intense negotiations won't close them. You also have the second problem of even if a framework agreement is reached on the four or five core issues, implementation is a huge, huge problem.

So again, I think there's really no alternative other than to desist, and you have a - you know, John Kerry is the Energizer bunny of American foreign policy, not just on this issue but a variety of others. So he's going to continue to invest in this, and hopefully he'll succeed in getting both Abbas and Netanyahu to own, to a degree they now don't, their negotiation and whatever document emerges.

YOUNG: Well, let's talk a little bit about those core issues you keep mentioning because it feels as if there's circular arguments about each of them that we've been hearing for decades. He's kept - Kerry has kept some of the proposals under wraps, of course, but he's expected to push for Israel's withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, as well as a halt to new Israeli settlements.

Palestinians will be asked, among other things, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu calls that a minimal requirement. But Abbas says the Palestinians won't agree to it, although he does say he recognizes Israel's existence. You know, remind us of the distinction and if you see any wiggle room anywhere in any of those, settlements, Israel as a Jewish state.

MILLER: Well, you know, well, first of all, there are five core issues: borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem; and the fifth issue, which Netanyahu has put on the table and which the Americans for sure have accepted, even if the Palestinian state has not, and that is the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

On Jerusalem and refugees, I think the gaps are very large.

YOUNG: Well, let's remind people, first of all, refugees, this is...

MILLER: In other words, Palestinians want a right of return. They want specific continuous immigration to a Palestinian state and some repatriation compensation and return to Israel proper. That's an evocative, extremely emotional issue for Palestinians.

YOUNG: This is the return to Israel of the Palestinians who were there before 1948, or of their children, yeah.

MILLER: Yeah, although that issue many say is a card to be traded away, you're not dealing with a - this is not Yasser Arafat, who has the authority and legitimacy, assuming he had the intention, to reach an agreement. Mahmoud Abbas is a man who I think has eschewed violence and really does want an agreement, but he's also very constrained. So he doesn't have much flexibility on the Palestinian consensus.

But in any rate, I think that the odds are not overwhelmingly negative in trying to produce a piece of paper that in effect does lay out for the first time the June '67 lines or the basis for a negotiation, with mutually agreed territorial swaps - that is to say, whatever the Israelis keep in order to incorporate settlers and settlement blocks in Israel proper will have to be compensated from territory in Israel proper to the Palestinians.

That notion is more or less acceptable to both sides. And on the security issue, I suspect there's a way to deal with that. But again, the fact is, even if you get a piece of paper, unless that piece of paper really does reflect real understandings and agreement on these issues, then you're going to end up with negotiations that will not be able to close the gap.

So again, I'll repeat it again, I really think that Kerry, having invested so much in this process, Abbas and Netanyahu don't want to be blamed for its collapse, and both fear the alternative to no process. I think those three elements could get you, in the next several months, a piece of paper. The question is whether you'll ever be able to implement it.

YOUNG: By the way, when you say security concerns, those are the concerns of Israel, that the land that they want to build on with settlements is a buffer, a security buffer between them and parts of the West Bank. Well, just in the few seconds we have, as this is going on, we hear news that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who's been in a coma for eight years, may be going to a more critical place. Just a few seconds on what his inevitable passing is going to mean in the middle of all this.

MILLER: I think it reflects, certainly on the Israeli side, a basic reality. Israel has its own leadership crisis. It's in a transition from men who are responsible for creating the state, sustaining it, helping it to prosper, maintaining its security, larger-than-life figures, to a generation of younger Israeli politicians, very smart, able men but who lack the authenticity, the authority and the legitimacy to make the kinds of decisions, Robin, that you and I are talking about.

That's the real significance. Shimon Peres alone remains the last member of that founding generation, and when I think about Sharon's passing, I think about that leadership vacuum.

YOUNG: Aaron David Miller, with the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Always great to talk to you, Aaron, thanks so much.

MILLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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