Jo Biddle, AFP
Last updated: 2 September, 2014

Wednesday talks propel Kerry back into Middle East tumult

US Secretary of State John Kerry wades back into the tumult of the Israel-Palestinian peace process Wednesday, meeting Palestinian negotiators for the first time since the 50-day war in Gaza ended.

The talks come just days after Israel announced its biggest grab of Palestinian land since the 1980s, and as a new showdown looms at the United Nations with the increasingly frustrated Palestinians planning to push a resolution setting a three-year deadline to end the Israeli occupation.

It will be Kerry’s first face-to-face talks with Palestinian negotiators since Washington found itself sidelined from the Gaza ceasefire talks in July, when Kerry, the top US diplomat, failed to broker a truce in the war between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

It was a further blow after Kerry’s high-profile bid to hammer out a full peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed spectacularly amid bitter recriminations in April, despite him shuttling back and forth to the region more than a dozen times during his first year in office.

The veteran diplomat was expected to speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by telephone on Tuesday before meeting Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erakat and Majid Faraj, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

“I think they’ll talk about a range of issues. There’s obviously an ongoing ceasefire discussion and upcoming negotiations that will take place. There’s a range of longer-term issues,” Psaki said Tuesday, asked about the talks taking place the next day.

More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, nearly 70 percent of them civilians, which ended last week with an open-ended ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant groups, brokered by Egypt.

The two sides are supposed to meet soon in Cairo for negotiations on a long-term truce, but no date has been announced yet for the start of the talks.

– ‘Eroding support’ –

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid warned Tuesday that Israel was eroding its international support, complaining the security cabinet had not been consulted about Sunday’s announcement of the confiscation of 400 hectares (988 acres) of land in the occupied West Bank for settlement building.

“Maintaining the support of the world was already challenging, so why was it so urgent to create another crisis with the United States and the world?” Lapid, a centrist, told a conference in Tel Aviv.

And Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a cabinet moderate who served as chief negotiator in abortive US-brokered peace talks, also slammed the land grab. “It weakens Israel and threatens its security,” she said.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose far-right Jewish Home party draws much of its support from the settler lobby, defended the move as retaliation for the murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank earlier this year.

Psaki renewed US warnings about continued Israeli settlement building, saying such steps “are contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians” and would “send a very troubling message.”

She called on the Israeli government to “reverse this decision,” while warning against “any unilateral steps that undermine the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.”

The Palestinians now intend to seek a UN Security Council resolution setting a three-year deadline for ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“We will be seeking a Security Council resolution on ending the occupation on a specific date. We should know that the occupation will end within three years,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told reporters, without saying when the resolution would be put forward.

She admitted Washington would likely veto any such resolution, and Psaki stressed “our view has long been that there are a range of productive ways to have discussions about how to achieve a two-state solution. Typically, that’s not through international governing bodies.”

Kerry meanwhile, met Tuesday with American and European Jewish community leaders to discuss a “sharp increase in anti-Semitic” rhetoric and violence worldwide.

“He reiterated the US government’s deep concern about the prevalence and pervasiveness of anti-Semitic threats and attacks against Jewish individuals, houses of worship, and businesses during the past few months,” a statement said.