JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talks with U.S. President Barack Obama next week are likely to prove crucial for determining whether peace negotiations with the Palestinians have a future beyond April.
The premier leaves Sunday for a series of meetings in Washington squarely focused on two key issues: the fate of the U.S.-led peace process in light of an April 29 deadline, and nuclear talks between world powers and Iran.
Although Netanyahu would like his talks with Obama on Monday to deal predominantly with Iran, the White House appears to have a different agenda.
“Obama will press him to agree to a framework for a conclusive round of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that is being drafted by Secretary of State John Kerry,” the New York Times said this week, quoting senior U.S. officials.
Direct peace talks, which began in July 2013 with the goal of reaching a deal within nine months, have made no apparent progress, with Kerry now focused on getting them to agree a framework proposal which would extend the deadline until the year’s end.
Although the document has not yet been made public, it is understood to be a non-binding proposal laying out guidelines for negotiating the central issues of the conflict, including such as borders, security, Jerusalem, the settlements and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The proposal, or its outline, is likely to be presented to Netanyahu next week and to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on March 17 when he meets Obama at the White House.
While Kerry faces an uphill battle to win over a Palestinian leadership which has steadfastly refused any extension, following months of relentless Israeli settlement expansion, pundits said the prime minister was likely to agree, albeit with reservations.
“This is a crucial meeting with Obama, which is going to determine the shape of the framework for further negotiations,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Bar Ilan University.
“What both Kerry and Obama are hoping to get is some kind of approval from Netanyahu for the document,” he told AFP, saying the Israeli leader was likely to accept the framework rather than risk being portrayed as the party who brought about the collapse of the talks.
The aim is reportedly to secure an agreement before the end of March when Israel is due to release a fourth and final batch of 26 veteran Palestinian security prisoners in line with commitments to the U.S.
“Israel won’t be the one who derails the talks to achieve an American framework paper,” Eli Bardenstein wrote in Maariv newspaper.
However, there may be a price to pay with Israel’s army radio suggesting last week that Washington was to demand a partial freeze on construction in isolated settlements outside the major West Bank blocs that Israel hopes to retain in any peace deal.
Freezing settlement construction is a central demand of the Palestinians, but Israel has so far resisted persistent pressure to renew a one-time, 10-month partial freeze on new West Bank building.
The freeze expired in late 2010, contributing to the collapse of the last round of peace talks.
Hardliners in Netanyahu’s fractious coalition have cautioned the premier against any such move, warning it could cost him dearly.
- ‘Palestinians must be flexible’ -
Netanyahu’s main message is that Israel has so far demonstrated flexibility, and the time has come to demand the same of the Palestinians.
“We want the process with Kerry to succeed but obviously it’s not just dependent on us,” a senior Israeli official told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
“Ultimately this process will only work if the Palestinians too are open to be creative and flexible,” he said.
Last week, the Palestinians said Kerry’s ideas for a framework “cannot be accepted,” denouncing a clause stipulating recognition of Israel as the Jewish state, and the fact that the framework glossed over their demand for a capital in east Jerusalem.
Nimrod Goren, chairman of the Israeli think-tank Mitvim, said a key aspect of the Washington talks would be what could done to keep the Palestinians at the table.
“Much of the discussion behind the scenes will be about what Abbas should get in terms of being able to accept the document, which now does not seem very favorable towards him.”
On Tuesday, Netanyahu will be able to focus his attention fully on Iran when he addresses the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC.
“Israel is worried about the post-interim agreement which ends on July 20 and would like to know what the United States is going to do,” said Gilboa of the initial six-month deal to partially roll back Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for limited sanctions relief.
With Israel at odds with Washington over the shape of a final deal, Netanyahu would seek to strengthen domestic U.S. support for Israel.
“Netanyahu will perhaps want to strengthen AIPAC on the Iranian issue… to keep up the pressure on the Obama administration,” said Goren.