Moscow says Abbas, Netanyahu agree ‘in principle’ to meet


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have agreed “in principle” to meet to discuss restarting peace talks in Moscow under the auspices of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday that no date has been set for the meeting, The Associated Press reported. Abbas and Netanyahu have been trading barbs in recent days over who canceled previously scheduled meetings and why.

Peace talks have been on hold for more than two years. Abbas and Netanyahu last met officially in 2010, but it is believed that since then they have held secret meetings.

Netanyahu in a meeting Monday morning with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East, discussed the Putin proposal to host a face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas in Moscow, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu is reviewing the proposal and considering the timing of a possible meeting, according to the statement. He told Bogdanov that he is always ready to meet with Abbas directly and without preconditions.

In late August, Abbas’ office said the Palestinians were ready to participate in a peace initiative. Abbas said Tuesday that a meeting scheduled in Moscow this week had been delayed by Israel.

No agenda has been set for a Moscow meeting and experts say it seems unlikely that there will be a breakthrough.

Netanyahu keeps calling for talks with Abbas. Is he serious?


For a leader often accused of not wanting to talk peace with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sure does a lot of talking about wanting to talk to the Palestinians.

In a series of three statements this month, Netanyahu repeatedly stressed the need for peace with the Palestinians. He called the peace process one of his highest priorities and hinted that a renewal of talks might be underway.

Responding to a question about the peace process on Twitter on May 12, Israel’s Independence Day, Netanyahu said “there’s nothing I want more or am more active on, in many ways you don’t know.” Later that day, speaking to foreign diplomats in Jerusalem, he asked for help arranging a meeting between himself and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“I have taken steps that no other prime minister in Israel’s history has taken to advance peace,” he said. “Every minute that President Abbas refuses to accept my call for peace robs Palestinians and Israelis of the opportunity to live without fear.”

Netanyahu’s commitment to a Palestinian state, even in theory, has remained a question mark and divided observers of Israeli politics since he took office in 2009. Both his defenders and his critics point to different sets of gestures and statements he’s made that signal support for, or opposition to, a two-state solution. In the lead-up to elections 14 months ago, he dismissed the possibility of a Palestinian state on his watch.

But in a talk to North American Jewish federations last November, he said he “remain[s] committed to a vision of two states for two peoples where a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state, and Israel will continue to work for peace in the hope that what is not achievable today might be achievable tomorrow.”

At the same time, Abbas repeatedly has declined another round of negotiations, saying he would only talk without preconditions and insisting on Israeli good-faith measures. Before the last series of talks, in 2013, Israel released 82 Palestinian prisoners before the two sides met. Netanyahu’s defenders say Abbas’ reticence shows that the Palestinian leader remains the main obstacle to a deal.

“This process has two sides, and I think the central problem isn’t Israel but Abu Mazen,” said former Israeli Deputy National Security Adviser Shaul Shay, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “Abu Mazen isn’t prepared to reach an agreement, so things are stuck not necessarily because of Israel.”

Abbas instead has turned to international forums, including the United Nations, to recognize a Palestinian state and hold Israel accountable for what he calls violations of international law. 

Most recently, Abbas endorsed a French-led initiative to convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference for the summer, an initiative Israel opposes.

The France initiative is just one of three factors leading Netanyahu to emphasize peace talks again, analysts say. The others include the possibility of the center-left Labor Party joining his coalition and a desire to project optimism on Israel’s Independence Day.

The French initiative calls for a regional peace conference to be held in the summer. Should negotiations fail, France has vowed to recognize a State of Palestine. Israel thus far has refused to participate, saying the statehood recognition threat gives the Palestinians no incentive to negotiate in good faith.

“The only way to advance a true peace between us and the Palestinians is by means of direct negotiations between us and them, without preconditions,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday. “Any other attempt only makes peace more remote and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch.”

Netanyahu is also enmeshed in negotiations with the Knesset’s largest opposition party, Labor, which advocates a settlement building freeze and renewed peace talks. Rumors have swirled in recent days that party chairman Isaac Herzog is ready to sign on in exchange, in part, for being named Israel’s foreign minister. Herzog acknowledged the negotiations in a May 12 Facebook post, but said he was not yet ready to join the government.

“If I receive a mandate to stop the next campaign of funerals and to block the danger of an international boycott, to bring back the United States and Europe as allies, to open negotiations with regional states and to separate from the Palestinians into two states so as to stop the continual campaign of terror, then I’ll know my hands are on the steering wheel,” the post read.

Netanyahu’s peace talk may also have been prompted, analysts say, by a need to give a sort of “State of the Union” on Independence Day. While prospects for peace may be dim, Shay said, relations with the Palestinians are still of paramount importance.

“On Independence Day, the prime minister talks to the people and surveys what the situation is and what the future will hold,” Shay said. “You can’t ignore this central subject.”

Renewed negotiations have seemed remote recently. A brutal war in Gaza followed the collapse of talks in 2014. Last year saw the formation of a right-wing Israeli government, succeeded by a wave of terror that is only now fading.

“He sees a theoretical possibility but not a practical one,” said Dror Zeevi, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Hebrew University, referring to Netanyahu. “If things come together, it’s possible he would be ready for a deal, but I don’t think it’s practical in the current government.”

Those who insist Netanyahu is sincere about renewing talks point to his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, where he committed to supporting a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. They note that he froze West Bank settlement growth in 2010 and freed Palestinian prisoners to jump-start negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Since taking office seven years ago, Netanyahu repeatedly has called for direct negotiations with Abbas.

“He’s ready to make concessions,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “Everyone knows he’ll make concessions. He was ready to freeze settlements. There are concessions he won’t make for security reasons, for historical reasons, and the nation agrees with him.”

Others point to Netanyahu’s decades-long opposition to Palestinian statehood prior to 2009. Since the building freeze, they note, Netanyahu has expanded settlements throughout the West Bank. And in March 2015, two days before Israeli elections, Netanyahu told the Israeli news website NRG that a Palestinian state would not rise while he is prime minister.

Gershon Baskin, who has acted as a conduit between the Netanyahu government and Palestinian leaders, told JTA that Abbas has thrice offered to begin secret direct talks with Netanyahu. Each time, Baskin said, Netanyahu has refused.

“The point isn’t negotiating anymore — it’s making decisions,” Baskin said. “[Netanyahu] doesn’t do anything in terms of policy to show that a two-state solution is what he wants. Nothing on the ground indicates that.”

But others insist it is Abbas offering the “Mixed Messages,” as the Washington Institute for Near East Policuy titled a recent report on the Palestinian leader and Israel.

“It is not just that Abbas and the P.A. turned their backs on any peace talks with Israel — a position they have hewed to ever since” turning to the international community for unilateral actions, wrote David Pollock, the Kaufman fellow and director of Project Fikra at The Washington Institute. “It is also that they had decided thenceforth to seek independent statehood for themselves without paying any price at all to Israel — neither the end of claims and conflict, nor a compromise on refugees, nor formal agreement on any other issue. In other words, their objective was land without peace.”

Letters to the editor: UC’s dilemma, The Shabbos Project traffic jam, RCA and more


First Step: Naming the Problem

Thank you for running the excellent column by professor Judea Pearl (“The UC’s New Dilemma: To Name or Not to Name,” Nov. 6). His comments are perfectly succinct. As a parent of four UC students, current and alumni, we have personally felt the ugly whiplash of Zionophobia. 

My own kids have been silenced by teachers for pointing out factual errors in classroom discussions and have been assaulted and spat upon at anti-Israel rallies. My kids have spent all-nighters speaking at student council meetings on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. I have personally written more than a dozen letters to administrators, teachers and department chairs at UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. 

As Pearl states, let’s name names and be explicit about where the First Amendment and discrimination meet.

Thank you for a strong piece.

Anne M. Storm, via email

Rules Are Rules

As an Orthodox Jewish woman, one who is very pro-women and women’s rights, I could not disagree more with the concept of ordaining women as rabbis (“A Time to Stand for Female Spiritual Leadership,” Nov. 6). Female leadership has its rightful place among all streams of Judaism, however, the Orthodox model maintains that women cannot conduct certain religious actions, specifically in regards to men fulfilling their commanded mitzvot. She cannot lead a man in prayer or assist him in the majority of his spiritual work, and therefore cannot fulfill the traditional role of rabbi within Orthodoxy. 

As a therapist — not a rabbi or a rabbi’s wife — I get daily calls with questions about religious matters of all kinds. If a woman wants to lead in the Orthodox movement, then she can and she should. The work is the work by any name. 

The RCA, although by far not free from the influences of power, control and, dare I say, misogyny, has done the right thing. Women do not need the title of rabbi to perform the work of a female community leader and it is presumptuous to assume that all Orthodox women want Orthodox women rabbis. 

No matter what happens, decency, respect and love for our fellow Jew must always be the tone of any discussion, regardless of the outcome. However, it is the responsibility of the established leadership, in this case, the RCA, to guard the gate of Orthodox Torah values. Those who wish for something different can, by all means, create something new under a different umbrella. 

Mia Adler Ozair, Beverly Hills

Project Gridlock

It’s hard “to be sane in an insane world” (as Rabbi Shlomo Yisraeli’s class was titled) when a Shabbat observance shuts down a major east-west thoroughfare — at rush hour on a Friday — with no advance publicity or advisory signage (“The Shabbat Heard ’Round the World,” Oct. 30). Affected businesses likewise were not notified and were forced to close early. From a public relations and traffic perspective, The Shabbos Project was a disaster. 

What was inspiring for Rabbi Yonah Bookstein was infuriating to thousands of commuters who didn’t know their already-rough commute was going to be made much worse by the closing of a critical section of Pico Boulevard during a peak traffic period. Traffic was a nightmare, with many drivers frantically turning north and south through residential neighborhoods to escape the gridlock. 

I hope the Jewish Unity Network can find a more appropriate location (e.g., a private venue or a public park) for its event next year, so Jews and non-Jews alike can get home — some of us for our own Shabbat dinners — without needless disruption and aggravation.

Susan Gans, president, Roxbury-Beverwil Homeowners Alliance

20/20 Hindsight? Continued

How could Rob Eshman yearn for Bill Clinton (“Bring Bill Clinton Back to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Table,” Oct. 30)?  Is he not aware that the Clinton foundation has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the leaders of Qatar, the premier sponsor of Hamas terrorism? While Bill and Hillary are cashing those checks and adding to their $150 million influence-peddling treasure trove, Israelis have died from different checks written by Qatar’s leaders.

Shame on him for being so gullible and backing the Clintons, who put our country up for sale.

Jason Goodman, via email

corrections

A Business and Finance story about the ride service HopSkipDrive (“Kids Catch a Ride With HopSkipDrive,” Nov. 6) incorrectly identified Smart Capital as one of its investors instead of FirstMark Capital.

A Travel story about Goa, India (“Ready, Set, Goa,” Oct. 30), misspelled the first name of the owner of the Cozy Nook. The owner’s name is Agnelo “Aggy” D’Costa.

Letters to the editor: Lucy Aharish, Bill Clinton and peace talks, the Temple Mount and more


Lucy Aharish: Progressive and Practical

I agree with David Suissa’s column “Why I Love Lucy” (Oct. 30). In order for there to be true peace in the State of Israel, the Palestinian Authority must have a progressive attitude. Instead of wallowing in the past with hatred and resentment, Palestinians must think of how they can move forward and build a better future. Until the Palestinian leaders adopt this Israeli mindset, the violence and hatred will never end. Israeli-Arab news personality Lucy Aharish understands what must be done to achieve peace and was brave enough to speak up. The real question is, will the Palestinian Authority ever adopt this progressive mentality and benefit for the future of its nation, or will it choose to be “stuck in failure mode”? Suissa’s opinion on the matter has made me love Lucy, too. 

Talya Sawdayi, Los Angeles

It was refreshing to see a Palestinian’s positive outlook on Israel, not the usual hatred we receive from our biggest adversary. If people who are uneducated in the Israel-Palestine conflict read “Why I Love Lucy,” it would be an eye-opening experience. Lucy Aharish doesn’t belittle either side, but rather states facts to back up her arguments, which is very uncommon on social media today. She makes valid points by stating Israelis aren’t the cause for the Arabs’ downfall: “They’re so caught up in seeing themselves as victims they don’t progress and look toward the future.” If the Palestinian leaders viewed everything from her perspective, there would be peace in the Middle East today and somewhere for the Arabs to call their home, instead of trying to destroy ours. Aharish’s bold statements on matters many are afraid to discuss are truly aspiring. Her productive attitude toward the conflict is, too, why I love Lucy. 

Aaliyah Botach, Los Angeles

20/20 Hindsight?

Rob Eshman has become a bit too nostalgic (“Bring Bill Clinton Back to the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Table,” Oct. 30). Bill Clinton had Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak as his Israeli counterparts. President Barack Obama has Benjamin Netanyahu. Does he really think Clinton could work with Bibi and accomplish anything?

Unfortunately, the problems we are facing today have little to do with the United States and all too much to do with Israeli leadership.

Jeffrey M. Ellis, via jewishjournal.com

Even Exchanges vs. Excuses, Continued

While “The Knife War Is Not Evenhanded” (Oct. 23) was filled with excellent points, there were a few I liked especially. 

“When we confuse acts of aggression with acts of self defense, when we pretend that everyone is equally guilty and equally responsible, we suck the air out of accountability” really made me realize how angry I was about the false accusations against the Jews in situations involving weapons. Many news stations have falsely accused Israelis and Jews for causing the terror, when in reality, we are just defending our people and ourselves. Suissa made a brilliant point when stating, “Running away from this truth and trying to appear evenhanded does more than put the readers to sleep. It wakes the killers.” When the Palestinians and Arabs tell news stations and their own people things that aren’t true, they are causing even more violence between the Jews and Arabs, making people angry and making people risk their lives to hurt others.  

Samantha Shapiro, North Hollywood

Temple Mount Too Much

I agree with Shmuel Rosner when he says that what we have the right to do is not always the smart thing to do (“Temple Mount: The Right Thing or the Smart Thing?” Oct. 30). I also agree with his premise that Israel’s primary obligation is to ensure a “secured future for the Jewish state.” However, I disagree with his conclusion that Israel should give up its right to visit the Temple Mount in hopes of placating the Palestinians and stopping the terrorism. I believe that making such a move would be rewarding them for acts of violence. Moreover, we’ve learned from the pullout from Lebanon in 2006 and from Gaza in 2009 that making concessions often does not promote peace, but rather emboldens the aggressors.

Tzippora Topp, Los Angeles

Unreliable Narrator

I disagree with Andrew Friedman’s opinion on attempting to get involved with the private matters of the Israeli police and authorities (“Detaining Peace,” Oct. 30). Not only is Friedman overstepping his boundaries, he also is unaware of the situation and barely knows the arrested man, Mohannad. Even after speaking to Khaled Abu Awwad, Mohannad’s father, and learning that the family believed Mohannad’s first jail sentence had good reason and was a fair amount of time, he still questioned the Israeli officials. 

My last thought is that Mohannad’s family members are not good testifiers. Being a part of his family would make your opinion biased, at the least, and therefore unreliable.

Avital Tofler, Los Angeles

Restarting the U.S.-Israel relationship depends on Palestinians too


As someone who was critical of several steps by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the campaign leading up to his reelection, particularly his decision to address Congress and his statement seeming to reject a Palestinian state, I am even more troubled by statements now coming out of the White House calling for a reassessment of policy toward Israel, including a reconsideration of the historic American veto in the UN Security Council.

Let me be clear: I wish Mr. Netanyahu would do more to solidify relations with Israel's ally in America and to stand up to those in Israel who seek to make impossible a Palestinian state. None of this, however, justifies what we are hearing from the Obama administration. Their reactions raise deeper questions about their intentions and perspectives.

From the beginning of the Obama years, there was a disturbing indifference to the mindset of the Israeli public, characterized by the president's speech in Cairo and focus on Israeli settlements as the key obstacle to peace.

Talk of “neither party willing to make sacrifices for peace,” and even seeming to put the blame on Israel, simply disregarded the brutal reality of what Israelis went through for a decade starting with the Camp David meeting in 2000. There, a left-wing Israeli government, elected by a public hoping against hope that the Palestinians were finally ready to abandon their decades-long struggle against Israel, offered a true two-state solution to the Palestinians. Not only was it rejected, but violence and suicide bombs followed for years.

After that, Israeli leaders took two more steps toward that vaunted goal of two states: first the gut-wrenching withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and then the offer by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Israelis saw these initiatives rejected again, together with Hamas taking over Gaza with its attendant rockets and war. In sum, Israelis saw an unrepentant foe still seemingly committed to irredentist goals.

Nothing much has changed since then on the Palestinian side. Hamas continues to control Gaza and, after another war, is seeking to rearm for the next conflict against Israel. And the Palestinian Authority has found every excuse to avoid negotiations, making it clear to Israelis that Palestinian leaders are far more interested in turning the international community and the U.S. against Israel than to resolving their internal problems and the conflict with Israel. Or put another way, they seemed interested in achieving a Palestinian state only if it meant not having to end the struggle against Israel.

What, therefore, would have been a reasonable response by Washington to recent developments?

Resentment at Mr. Netanyahu's sidestepping the president is understandable. If there was concern about the election of a right-wing government, however, attention should have focused less on not liking what Israeli democracy produced and more on examining why Israelis voted as they did and what can be done to change that reality.

The answer lies not in the U.S. distancing itself from Israel, which will encourage Palestinians in their belief that they can have their cake and eat it, achieving a state without accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state. And it will reinforce Israeli fears of being under siege.

Rather, it lies in doing something the administration has seemingly been reluctant to do: pressuring the Palestinians into finally making the qualitative leap toward accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state. This and this alone could truly change the dynamic of the conflict that has been troubling the world for so long.

Steps that would represent such change would include concrete indications of finally recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, accepting that the Palestinian refugee problem would be resolved within a new Palestinian state, declaring that a peace accord would represent the end of the conflict and future demands and eliminating the hate campaigns in the media and schools against Israel and Jews.

The absence of any progress on all these issues over many years leaves Israelis with the belief that not much has changed on the Palestinian side, and that they need to tough it out until change comes.

There are good arguments against this Israeli approach even if there is no change on the Palestinian side. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opted for a unilateral initiative despite his belief that Israel currently had no peace partner. But as these elections show, most Israelis are ready to vote for security in the current environment.

On the other hand, if real positive Palestinian change would occur, that would generate the greatest impact for change on the Israeli side. A diminution of fears about Palestinian intentions is the best formula for a more moderate Israeli electorate and Israeli policies.

This should be a time for healing between American and Israeli leaders. The prime minister, the president and congressional leaders should not be trying to score points at the expense of the other. Instead they should refocus on the common values and interests of the two nations and recognize that we both face many common challenges in the Middle East.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Kerry warns Israel could become ‘an apartheid state’


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a roomful of world leaders that Israel could become “an apartheid state” if peace talks fail.

Kerry made the remarks Friday during a meeting of the Trilateral Commission, which includes senior officials from the United States, Europe, Russia and Japan, the Daily Beast reported on Sunday evening, saying it had obtained a recording of the closed-door meeting.

“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative,” Kerry said, according to the Daily Beast, “because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”

Kerry reportedly blamed both Israeli and Palestinian leaders for the current halt of the U.S.-backed peace talks.

According to the news website, he reiterated a warning that the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens. Kerry said he believes a change in the leadership of either the Israelis or Palestinians could help bring about a peace deal, and he heavily criticized Israel for continuing to build in West Bank settlements.

“There is a fundamental confrontation and it is over settlements — 14,000 new settlement units announced since we began negotiations. It’s very difficult for any leader to deal under that cloud,” Kerry said.

He told the world leaders that he is considering releasing his own peace plan and telling both sides to “take it or leave it,” according to the Daily Beast.

Kerry said both sides will have to make the tough decisions necessary for achieving peace.

“There’s a period here where there needs to be some regrouping. I don’t think it’s unhealthy for both of them to have to stare over the abyss and understand where the real tensions are and what the real critical decisions are that have to be made,” he said. “Neither party is quite ready to make it at this point in time. That doesn’t mean they don’t have to make these decisions.”

 

Gap in peace talks wide, Palestinian official says


A meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators ended without an agreement to resume peace talks, a Palestinian official said.

The meeting held Thursday in Jerusalem sought a framework that would allow talks to continue for another nine months. It lasted five hours, and the atmosphere was chilly, the unnamed official told the French news agency AFP Friday.

U.S. peace envoy Martin Indyk is scheduled to meet with the Palestinian and Israeli teams separately on Friday, AFP reported.

The talks Thursday were “very difficult”, the Palestinian source said. “The gap … is still wide.” According to Army Radio, attending the talks Thursday were Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Indyk.

The negotiators were discussing ways to reach an agreement on a framework for peace talks beyond the April 29 deadline originally set by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Talks were put on hold earlier this month after Israel failed to meet a March 29 deadline to free the final batch of 26 of 104 prisoners it agreed to release at the outset of the talks.

In response, the Palestinian Authority applied for membership in several international conventions, a process it had agreed to suspend as long as talks were ongoing.

One critical area of disagreement has been over whether Israeli Arab citizens should be included in the prisoner release, as the Palestinian Authority has demanded.

Kerry: U.S. to reconsider peacemaking role


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States planned to re-evaluate its approach to Middle East peacemaking in light of recent setbacks.

In response to a question while visiting Morocco, Kerry said that he would return to Washington to confer with President Obama before deciding on the next steps. He said it was “reality-check time.”

“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward,” he said Friday.

“We intend to evaluate,” he added. “Both sides say they want to continue. Neither party has said they have called it off. But we are not going to sit there indefinitely. It is not an open-ended effort,” he added, according to the New York Times.

But he acknowledged that the United States faced an array of foreign policy challenges, including in Ukraine, Iran and Syria. “We have an enormous amount on the plate,” he said.

On Friday, Kerry phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a bid to save the peace talks amid breakdowns that prevented progress.

On Tuesday, Abbas led the Palestinian Authority to apply to join 15 international conventions in defiance of its commitment not to seek such recognition until an agreement is in place.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said wrote on Facebook that this “looks more like a deliberate provocation aimed at blowing up the talks.”

Abbas went ahead with the application after Israel failed to release 26 Palestinian prisoners it said it would release in a framework agreement for jump-starting talks. Israeli officials said they did not agree to the release of Israeli Arabs, a move which the Palestinian Authority demanded.

Palestinian negotiators are currently demanding that Netanyahu give a written commitment to recognize east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital and lift the naval blockade from Gaza as a condition to going ahead with peace talks, Army Radio on Friday reported. They are also demanding the release 1,200 prisoners, including Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, the report said.

Israel misses deadline for announcing prisoner release


Israel’s government missed the legally required deadline for releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners due to be freed as part of the peace talks.

Israel Radio quoted Jibril Rajoub, a top Palestinian security official, as saying that Israel had relayed through American channels that it does not intend to go ahead with the release.

Israeli law requires the government to make the names of the prisoners selected for release known at least 48 hours before they are set free, to allow for the processing of High Court of Justice appeals.

The prisoners were due to be released Saturday, but by Friday morning the five-minister committee chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that names prisoners to be released had not yet made their identities known. No date for convening the committee was publicized.

The Prime Minister’s Office has repeatedly turned down requests for comment on the issue. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister and the top negotiator with the Palestinians, said last week that there was never an “automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations.”

Israeli government officials reportedly said the release would be contingent on whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would agree to U.S. pleas to extend talks another nine months beyond an April 29 deadline.

Abbas met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for four hours in Jordan on Wednesday night. An additional meeting Friday between Abbas and U.S. special envoy Martin Indyk ended without progress, according to the Times of Israel.

Under the terms of the U.S.-brokered deal that got the sides back to the negotiating table last July, Israel was to release 104 prisoners convicted of crimes before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the Palestinians were to abstain from diplomatic moves to gain statehood status in various international organizations.

Israel so far has freed 78 prisoners and was due to release the fourth and final batch on March 29, including some Arab Israelis jailed for attacks.

Leaders of Netanyahu’s Likud party have opposed plans for releasing the prisoners. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said he would resign if the final release goes through.

Netanyahu lauds deadly West Bank raid to nab terrorist


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the security forces that took part in a deadly operation in the West Bank to arrest a Hamas terrorist.

The suspect and at least two others were killed in the raid in the Jenin refugee camp on Saturday morning.

“Our policy is to attack those who attack us and who are planning to attack us. Both were applicable in this case,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the regular weekly Cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu commended the units in the raid for “carrying out a very important operation in eliminating someone who endangered Israeli citizens.”

The suspected terrorist was identified as Hamza Abu Alhija, who was wanted for involvement in shooting and bombing attacks, as well as planning future terror attacks against Israeli civilians and Israeli soldiers, the IDF said in a statement.

Abu Alhija barricaded himself in his home with other Hamas operatives, according to the IDF, then opened fire on Israeli forces, wounding two, before attempting to escape while continuing to shoot. Israeli forces responded with live gunfire, killing him.

In the ensuing riot at the scene, Palestinians from Jenin threw rocks, firebombs and explosives at the Israeli forces. The Israelis responded with live fire, killing at least two other Palestinians, who were identified as belonging to Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, the military wing of the ruling Fatah party.

Three Palestinian terrorist groups — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades — issued a joint statement warning that they will take revenge on Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the deaths.

“The resistance in the West Bank is alive and won’t die, and the Zionist enemy can’t guess from where the resistance will attack. The blood of Jenin Martyrs won’t go in vain,” the groups said in a statement, according to the Times of Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ office condemned the incident, calling it an “escalation” by Israel. The statement also called on the United States to get involved before the teetering peace negotiations are completely “ruined.”

Israel says it might not carry out Palestinian prisoner release


Israel told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday it might not carry out a final stage of a Palestinian prisoner release unless he commits to prolonging peace talks beyond an April deadline for a deal.

A senior Palestinian official said there would be “big consequences” if the release did not go ahead as planned.

Israel's chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, issued her warning just a day after Abbas, at a White House meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama aimed at keeping the talks alive, voiced hope the prisoners would go free by March 29.

“There was never any automatic commitment to release prisoners unrelated to making progress in negotiations,” Livni said in a speech in southern Israel that could complicate Washington's efforts to salvage peacemaking.

She was referring to Israel's agreement, as part of U.S. efforts to revive Palestinian statehood talks frozen for three years, to free 104 inmates jailed for attacks, many of them deadly, against Israelis before a 1993 interim peace deal.

Israel has freed more than 70 of those prisoners since the negotiations resumed in July. But the talks have made little progress and Washington is trying to set guidelines to keep them going beyond the original April 29 target date for a deal.

Abbas's spokesman said a failure to hand over the final batch of prisoners would represent a violation of an accord struck with the United States and Israel.

“Any violation of this agreement would bring about big consequences,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, without giving further details.

U.S. officials fear the negotiations would collapse if Israel fails to free the final group of prisoners. Palestinians regard brethren jailed by Israel as heroes in a quest for an independent state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Israel views them as terrorists.

“The key to the door for Palestinian prisoners is in Abu Mazen's hands,” Livni said, using Abbas's nickname.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Israel wanted assurances that Abbas wouldn't walk out of the talks once the prisoners went free.

Netanyahu, who met Obama in Washington two weeks ago, has said any peace deal with the Palestinians would take at least another year to negotiate should both sides accept U.S.-proposed principles to keep the talks going.

“We need to be sure the negotiations will last beyond the release of prisoners, and that they will be substantive, and on solid ground,” the official said.

Another stumbling block, the official said, is a Palestinian demand that Israeli Arabs convicted of deadly attacks on Jews be included among those due to go free this month.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alistair Lyon and Crispian Balmer

Netanyahu says Israel would give up ‘some settlements’ for peace


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would give up “some settlements” in occupied Palestinian land to help secure a peace agreement but would limit as much as he could the number of enclaves removed.

The settlements are a key issue in peace talks renewed under Washington's tutelage in July after a three-year impasse. Little progress has been reported though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said he hopes to publish a framework for a deal soon.

“It is clear that some of the settlements, some of them, will not be included in the agreement. That's clear. Everyone understands that. I will ensure the number will be as small as possible, as far as is possible, if we get there,” Netanyahu said.

The settlements built in territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War are deemed illegal in international law and condemned by most governments.

Despite the peace negotiations, Israel has intensified construction in the past year. Central Bureau of Statistics figures released on Monday showed the number of new construction projects in the settlements doubled to 2,534 in 2013, from 1,133 in 2012.

Netanyahu's comments to Israel's Channel 2 television were his first in Hebrew to an expressly Israeli audience suggesting he would concede settlements for peace, though he made a similar commitment in English in a 2011 speech to the U.S. Congress.

They were recorded during a five-day visit to the United States from which he returned on Friday and which included talks at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday about the issues delaying a peace deal. Obama has been critical of Jewish construction in the settlements, including calling for a freeze in 2009.

In May 2011 Netanyahu said for the first time he was prepared to give up settlements for peace though Palestinians at the time rejected other terms Israel had set for then stalled negotiations.

Palestinians say settlements that dot much of the West Bank landscape would bar them from establishing a contiguous independent state alongside Israel, a goal of peace talks.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Angus MacSwan

Israel casts doubt on April target for Palestinian deal


Israel's defense minister said on Tuesday wide gaps remain in peace talks with the Palestinians after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's latest visit and he cast doubt on the chances of reaching a final accord by an April target.

Negotiations on Palestinian statehood resumed in July after a three-year halt, with a nine-month target set for a permanent peace agreement, amid deep skepticism that a deal could be achieved to end the generations-old conflict.

“We are attempting to achieve a framework for a continuation of negotiations for a period exceeding the nine months in which some thought that we would be able to reach a permanent agreement,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters.

“It is clear there are big gaps – they are not new – but it is definitely in our interest to continue the talks,” he said in broadcast remarks, without defining the differences.

Adding to the skepticism, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's negotiator, sounded a downbeat note in remarks to law students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“I don't want to achieve a deal at any price,” Livni said. She hinted at security concerns, such as Hamas Islamists who oppose Washington's peace effort gaining influence in the West Bank where moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rules.

“I am not among those who believe we should throw the key to the other side and just hope Hamas doesn't catch it,” she said.

The United States is trying to broker a “framework” of general guidelines to help bridge profound differences over issues including Jewish settlements on occupied land, Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state, the status of Jerusalem, borders, security arrangements and the future of Palestinian refugees, with details to be filled in later.

Before wrapping up his 10th visit to the region on Monday, Kerry said the two sides were making progress but there was still a chance no accord would be reached.

KERRY TO RETURN

Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said on Tuesday that Kerry would return soon to continue his talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

“We will take into account the suggestions, the requests and wishes of the parties and I hope and we will work so that in a few weeks, or perhaps a month – I don't know how long – we will be ready to present a proposal for a framework on all the core issues,” Shapiro said, speaking in Hebrew.

A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinian side was seeking a written framework agreement.

“We want it to address concrete issues, such as saying the Palestinian capital will be 'East Jerusalem', not just 'in Jerusalem',” the official said.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the occupied West Bank and in Hamas-controlled Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured the areas in the 1967 Middle East war and pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005.

Palestinians say continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and insistence on a permanent security presence in the territory's Jordan River valley border area are among the major obstacles to a deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has questioned Palestinians' commitment to peace, accusing their leaders of orchestrating “rampant” incitement against Israel.

Yaalon signaled that Israel was looking for a less rigid “framework” deal than Palestinians were seeking, in an apparent nod to concerns any formal agreement now could stoke opposition from hardline members of the Israeli government.

“We are not dealing with a framework agreement, but with a framework for the continuation of negotiations for a more lengthy period,” Yaalon said.

Shapiro said that Kerry had sat for “many, many hours” with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and heard from them things that “perhaps nobody else has heard”.

“Even though they have already taken brave decisions, he estimates they both have the ability to take more hard decisions with the support of their respective peoples,” Shapiro said.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Kerry presses sides on framework agreement


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders to discuss a framework agreement.

Kerry, who met Friday in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was on his 10th visit in the region to discuss the outlines of such an agreement, according to State Department officials who accompanied Kerry.

The framework Kerry hopes to achieve would address borders and Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

Kerry, in an impromptu appearance Friday afternoon at an event in Jerusalem for American students organized by the American Jewish Committee, said getting to a deal would be “very, very difficult,” Haaretz reported.

Palestinian and Israeli leaders have pledged to Kerry that they would not discuss the negotiations. But Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, told Israel Radio that the sides are further apart than ever. Netanyahu told two visiting U.S. senators, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), about his concerns regarding Kerry’s proposals.

“Netanyahu has serious, serious concerns about the plan as it has been presented to him, whether it be on the ability of Israel to defend its borders, on the reliability of a Palestinian state,” McCain was quoted by Haaretz as saying after the meeting.

With Kerry coming, Israel to delay announcement of West Bank building


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly will wait until after a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to announce new construction in West Bank settlements.

Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Thursday in a bid to boost the current U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. He reportedly will stay through Sunday and could extend his trip by several days in order to work for progress.

Kerry was last in Israel less than three weeks ago; it is his 12th visit to Israel since becoming secretary of state.

Netanyahu asked Housing Minister Uri Ariel to delay announcement of the tenders for the construction of 1,400 housing units in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, Haaretz reported Wednesday.

Israeli media reported last week that Netanyahu would announce up to 2,000 tenders for new settlement housing units on the heels of the third Palestinian prisoner release.

Israel agreed to several rounds of prisoner releases more than three months ago in conjunction with the Palestinians’ return to the negotiating table. The latest release occurred after midnight on Monday; the new West Bank construction had not been announced as of late Wednesday night.

Both the United States and the European Union have called on Netanyahu to refrain from announcing new settlement construction during Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

West Bank settlement housing construction projects were announced in October following the second release of Palestinian prisoners. The projects were roundly criticized by the United States, international bodies and international leaders.

Netanyahu downbeat as Kerry returns for peace talks


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered a gloomy assessment of peace prospects with the Palestinians on Thursday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began his 10th visit to the region in pursuit of a deal.

“There is growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace,” said Netanyahu, speaking with Kerry at his side and accusing Palestinian officials of orchestrating a campaign of “unabated incitement” against Israel.

In the days before Kerry's latest trip to Jerusalem, Palestinian leaders have likewise accused Israel of trying to sabotage the talks aimed at ending their decades-old conflict.

Kerry focused his remarks on a continued U.S. push toward a final peace agreement, which Washington hopes to achieve by April, and his shorter-term pursuit of a framework deal that would pave the way for a permanent accord.

He said Israeli and Palestinian leaders were nearing the point, or were already at it, where they would have to make tough decisions, and he pledged to work with both sides more intensely to try to narrow differences on a framework agreement.

Guidelines in such an accord would address core issues such as the borders of a future Palestinian state, security, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, Kerry said.

“It would create the fixed, defined parameters by which the parties would then know where they are going and what the end result can be,” he said. “This will take time and it will take compromise from both sides, but an agreed framework would be a significant breakthrough.”

FAR APART

On key issues in the conflict, leaders from both sides have sounded far apart this week.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin on Thursday rejected the creation of a Palestinian state based on the lines pre-dating the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel captured and Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“The Jordan Valley must be under Israeli sovereignty forever,” he said, referring to the border area with Jordan, from which Palestinians want a full Israeli withdrawal.

“The 1967 borders are Auschwitz borders,” Ha'aretz newspaper quoted him as saying, suggesting that a return to the narrower boundaries that existed before the conflict would lead to the destruction of Israel.

On Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas renewed a call for all Israeli settlers and soldiers within the lands captured in 1967 to be withdrawn, saying he would not hesitate to reject a bad deal.

“We will say 'yes' to any ideas suggested to us which meet our rights. But we will not fear and will not hesitate for a moment … to say 'no', whatever the pressure, to any proposal which detracts from or doesn't fulfil the higher national interests of our people,” he said in a speech.

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat last month said a framework agreement could allow the talks to be continued for another year. However, earlier this week, he said the U.S.-brokered talks were “failing”, and threatened to haul Israel before the International Criminal Court.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, a senior U.S. State Department official said Kerry was not expecting a breakthrough during his latest visit, when he will also meet with Abbas.

Kerry said on Thursday he did not intend to impose U.S. ideas, but to “facilitate the parties' own efforts.”

Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Mark Trevelyan

Kerry heading to Middle East next week for peace talks


Secretary of State John Kerry will return to Israel and the Palestinian territories for peace talks next week, a senior U.S. government official said on Saturday, days after Israel is due to free another group of Palestinian prisoners.

The U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kerry will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah late next week for more talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, resuming his intensive shuttle diplomacy after a Christmas break.

The United States is seeking to broker an agreement on a “two-state solution” in which Israel would exist peacefully alongside a new Palestinian state.

Kerry wants the sides to agree to a framework for an interim accord ahead of a deal in April, which would launch another year of talks aimed at a full-blown peace treaty. A framework would demonstrate that progress is being made in talks that began in July, according to U.S. officials.

A framework would touch on all the main issues, including security, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of refugees.

A major step in that process is the release of about two dozen Palestinian prisoners on Dec. 30, the third group to be freed since talks resumed in July. The release is seen by the United States as a vital confidence-building measure.

But the plan for the release was overshadowed by an announcement by Israel on Friday that it intends to build 1,400 homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a move Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the would “destroy the peace process” and could be met with retaliation.

The Palestinians see the Jewish settlements as an obstacle to achieving a viable state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most countries consider Israel's settlements there illegal.

During his last visit to the region on Dec. 13, Kerry said both sides remained committed to peace talks and were on course to wrap up an interim deal in April.

A previous round of negotiations in 2010 broke down in a dispute over settlement construction, and since their revival this year, peace talks have shown little sign of progress.

Editing by Will Duham

Kerry back to region to pursue faltering Mideast peace talks


Secretary of State John Kerry headed back to the Middle East on Thursday, a week after his previous visit ended with Palestinian dissatisfaction over U.S. security ideas for an elusive land-for-peace deal with Israel.

Kerry, who has quipped that his frequent trips to the region have become a commute, planned separate meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It will be the top U.S. diplomat's ninth visit to Israel since becoming secretary of state in February. Israel and the Palestinians resumed U.S.-brokered peace talks in July after a three-year break, aiming to reach a deal in nine months.

Amid little public sign of progress in the negotiations, Kerry said he had presented Israel and the Palestinians last week with “some thoughts” on security arrangements in any future accord, but gave no details.

A Palestinian source said that a U.S. security proposal last week outlined an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, which is in the West Bank, for 10 years.

Israel has long said it wants to keep a military presence in the Jordan Valley between the West Bank and Jordan, in what would constitute the eastern border of a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians reject that Israeli stipulation, and on Monday a senior Palestinian official accused Washington of bowing to Israel's security demands to silence its criticism of world power diplomacy over Iran's nuclear programme.

Israeli and U.S. officials have signalled that Washington is trying to achieve a framework agreement on all major issues of the decades-old conflict that would be fulfilled in phases, in a nod to Israeli security concerns.

Netanyahu has voiced worries that without an Israeli troop presence, Islamist militants could use the West Bank as a launching point for rocket attacks on Israel, much as they have in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel pulled out in 2005.

“Israel's security and the security of its citizens cannot be placed in the hands of foreign forces or in the hands of electronic means alone,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Israel Radio.

“Our security must be in our own hands,” he said. “I know it is hard for (the Palestinians) to swallow but they will have to accept … that Israel has security interests it cannot forgo, and if they want peace, they must make significant compromises.”

In Washington on Saturday, U.S. President Barack Obama said the Palestinians had to recognise there would be a transition period “where the Israeli people cannot expect a replica of Gaza in the West Bank”.

“They (the Palestinians) don't get everything that they want on Day One. And that creates some political problems for President Abbas, as well,” Obama said.

The Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, have long rejected any interim agreement.

But Western-backed Abbas, who has held sway only in the West Bank since his Hamas Islamist rivals seized the Gaza Strip in 2007, has hinted he would agree to a gradual implementation of a final accord. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said talks on security arrangements would continue during Kerry's visit but other issues would be discussed as well.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Alistair Lyon

Kerry pledges to protect Israel’s security in meeting with Netanyahu


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said progress is being made in the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

At a news conference in Jerusalem Thursday following a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kerry also pledged that the Obama administration would consult Israel on a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program. He reiterated that the United States was committed to Israel’s security.

Netanyahu said Israel is ready to complete a peace deal with the Palestinians and asserted that Israel must be able to protect itself. He called on Palestinian leaders to stop “grandstanding and finger pointing.”

Kerry was scheduled to meet in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas later Thursday and again with Netanyahu Thursday evening and Friday morning before returning to Washington.

Kerry reportedly was going to bring to the meeting proposals for security arrangements in the West Bank to be included in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Kerry postpones trip to Israel ahead of Geneva Iran talks


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a trip to Israel scheduled for this week.

Kerry hopes to visit Israel “in the coming weeks,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday afternoon.

Kerry had indicated earlier in the day during a joint news conference in Washington with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that he would not make it to Israel as planned.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had announced Sunday at a regular Cabinet meeting that Kerry would arrive in Israel at the end of the week, on Nov. 22, to discuss the proposed nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers, as well as stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Kerry’s decision to postpone his trip means that he will not meet with Netanyahu until after the next round of talks in Geneva regarding Iran’s nuclear program, which has been a source of contention between Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

Psaki told reporters that the relationship between Israel and the United States remains strong.

“Israel and the United States have a strong, decades-long partnership. We work together on a range of issues,” she said. “It’s important to note that the reason we are so – one of the reasons we’re so committed to pursuing the diplomatic path [with Iran] is because we are committed to Israel’s security, and that’s the message that we’re conveying.”

Psaki said the United States remains “committed to briefing the Israelis and staying in close contact about this [negotiations on Iran's nuclear program] and many other issues that we work together on.”

In his announcement Sunday, Netanyahu called Kerry “an old friend” who “is also a friend of Israel.”

“I would like to make it clear that there can be disagreements even among the best of friends, certainly on issues related to our future and our fate,” Netanyahu told the Cabinet.

On the issue of foundering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Psaki said Monday in answer to a reporter’s question that an indication of progress in the talks is “the fact that both sides have reaffirmed their commitment to the nine-month timeline” in direct conversations with Kerry.

Israel, Palestinians grim on peace talks before Kerry visit


Israeli and Palestinian officials said on Tuesday the three-month-old peace talks pressed on them by Washington are going nowhere, painting a grim picture for a visit this week by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Few details have emerged from negotiating sessions held at unannounced times and at secret locations in line with pledges to keep a lid on leaks.

But both sides have been airing their frustration over a lack of progress in the U.S.-brokered talks aimed at resolving core issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state, security arrangements, the future of Israeli settlements and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

“The Palestinians are not conducting the talks in good faith,” Gideon Saar, the Israeli interior minister who is close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Army Radio. “(The Palestinians) are locked in their positions and are showing no flexibility on their starting positions.”

In a speech broadcast on Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: “After all the rounds of negotiations there is nothing on the ground.”

With both sides already trading blame over the absence of any sign of movement in the negotiations, Kerry will hold separate meetings on Wednesday with Netanyahu and Abbas.

On the sidelines of the peace talks, Israel has released half of the 104 Palestinian prisoners it pledged to free under a deal Kerry brokered to draw Abbas back to negotiations after a three-year break over Israeli settlement-building.

Israel says continued housing construction in settlements, in areas it intends to keep in any peace accord, was part of those understandings, which led to the return home of long-serving Palestinian inmates convicted of killing Israelis.

In tandem with the release of 26 men last week, Israel pressed ahead with plans to build 3,500 more settler homes in the West Bank, a move widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to placate hardliners in his government.

Nabil Abu Rdeineh, an Abbas spokesman, condemned the settlement campaign but said Palestinians remained committed to the negotiations.

“What's required is a firm American position on Israel's provocations. Israel is continuing its policy of putting obstacles in front of the peace process – every time Kerry comes to the region they announce more settlements.”

LINKAGE

Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of reneging on what he said was an agreed prisoners-settlements link.

“If they can't even … stand beside and behind the agreements that we had, that we release prisoners but we continue building, then how can I see that they'll actually stand by the larger issues?” he said in an interview with the Israel-based i24 television news channel.

Abbas, speaking to his Fatah party on Sunday, voiced opposition to any such linkage, cautioning that “this equation could blow up the talks” and “there could be tensions soon”.

The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered illegal by most countries. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the areas, where about 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.

Israeli media on Monday reported that Kerry, who has given the sides nine months to reach a deal, plans in January to introduce a peace proposal if no major progress is made.

At a news conference in Riyadh on Monday, Kerry said there was no such plan “at this point in time”. He has spoken publicly of possible U.S. bridging proposals if no major progress is made.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning in Ramallah and Lesley Wroughton, editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Palestinians down on U.S. role in peace talks


Palestinian officials said they were “disappointed” by  the U.S. role in brokering their peace talks with Israel.

On Sunday, the officials criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for enabling the Israeli policy of announcing new settlement housing construction when releasing Palestinian prisoners. The criticism came just two days before Kerry was scheduled to visit Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem.

“We are disappointed by the American role, ” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close adviser to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, told Palestinian TV.

Rabbo said the Palestinians are concerned that Kerry will pressure them to remain at the peace negotiating table and not demand anything in return from Israel.

On Monday, Abbas said in a speech in Ramallah, “There hasn’t been any advancement in the talks with the Israelis until now despite all the meetings between the sides.”

Israel announced last week that it was building thousands of new housing units in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem hours after releasing 26 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails — part of a planned four-phased release of more than 100 Palestinian prisoners jailed for at least 19 years.

On Sunday, Israel’s Ministry of Housing and Construction and the Israel Land Authority said they will publish tenders for land zoned for the construction of 1,730 housing units in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, both in settlements Israel expects to keep under any peace deal with the Palestinians and in far-flung settlements.

Palestinian prisoner release causes Israeli political stir


A planned release of 26 Palestinian prisoners has provoked feuding within Israel's governing coalition, already under strain from U.S.-brokered peace talks.

The inmates, all of whom were convicted of murder in the killing of Israelis before or just after the first interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed 20 years ago, were due to go free after midnight on Tuesday.

Cutting short their life sentences has been particularly grating for many Israelis because prisoner releases were a Palestinian condition for reviving peace talks last August that few people on either side of the conflict believe will succeed.

In all, 104 long-serving prisoners will go free. A first group of 26 was let out two months ago in keeping with understandings reached during shuttle diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The release of terrorists in return for (Israeli chief negotiator) Tzipi Livni's dubious right to meet (Palestinian counterpart Saeb) Erekat is very grave,” the Jewish Home party, a far-right member of the government, said in statement at the weekend.

Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, then tried to get a proposal to freeze further prisoner releases past a ministerial committee, where members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party voted it down on Sunday.

“The picture is now clear: the government, unlike one of its member-parties, is acting in the national interest…this government is moving the peace process forward,” Livni, head of the small, centrist Hatnuah party, wrote on her Facebook page after Jewish Home's proposed law was rejected.

[Former Shin Bet head: Release of Palestinian prisoners no threat]

The squabbling did not end there. Bennett criticised Likud ministers, saying: “The release of terrorists is immoral, it weakens Israel and endangers its citizens, and we will continue to fight it in a democratic way”.

In an apparent attempt to appease Jewish Home and hardliners within Likud, government officials said new housing projects would be announced soon in West Bank settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal.

Israeli political commentators suggested that Bennett, whose party has 12 of parliament's 120 seats, had latched on to the prisoners issue as a way to swing Netanyahu's traditional right-wing supporters his way and establish himself as an alternative leader for the camp.

TRADE-OFF

Yuval Steinitz, Israel's strategic affairs minister and a Likud member, made clear in a radio interview on Monday that by agreeing to the prisoner releases, the government effectively had quashed a Palestinian demand to halt settlement building.

“The issue of freeing prisoners is certainly most painful for all of us. But strategically, the price of freezing construction in settlements would be much higher,” Steinitz said.

For Palestinians, who view settlements that Israel has erected on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war as obstacles to a state, brethren jailed by Israel are heroes in a fight for independence.

On the other side of the divide, families of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks held a vigil outside Ofer prison in the West Bank, where the prisoners slated for release were being held.

And at a military cemetery in Jerusalem, opponents of the release placed black signs, with a drawing of a bloody hand, on graves.

“As far as we are concerned, your death was in vain,” read the placards, signed “Government of Israel.”

Editing by Angus MacSwan

Israel-Palestinian peace talks have ‘intensified,’ Kerry says


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “all the core issues are on the table” in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that have intensified.

A meeting Monday in Jerusalem centered on the issue of sharing water resources, an unnamed Palestinian official told the French news agency AFP. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met three times in the past four days.

Kerry confirmed on Monday in Paris that negotiators have met 13 times since the end of July, when U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were restarted after a hiatus of several years.

“The pace has intensified, all the core issues are on the table and they have been meeting with increased intensity,” said Kerry, who is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Rome on Wednesday.

Kerry announced Monday that Qatar would provide $150 million in debt relief to the Palestinian Authority, saying that “for everybody to live up to the challenges of making peace, we have to support them.”

Also Monday, Kerry briefed the 22-member Arab League on the progress of the peace negotiations.

U.S. State Department denies Israeli-Palestinian peace talks canceled


The U.S. State Department on Monday denied reports that U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians had been canceled following clashes in the West Bank.

“I can assure you that no meetings have been canceled,” State Department spokeswoman Mari Harf told Reuters. “The parties are engaged in serious and sustained negotiations,” she said.

Earlier on Monday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper quoted a senior Palestinian official as saying that the Palestinians had canceled talks with the Israelis after Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians during an early morning raid to arrest a suspected militant in the West Bank.

Peace talks resumed last month after a three-year stalemate over Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Brunnstrom

Palestinians killed in Israeli raid, peace talks continue


Israeli troops shot dead three Palestinians during an early morning raid in a West Bank refugee camp on Monday, hours before negotiators met for another round of peace talks, Palestinian sources said.

Israeli border police said they entered the Qalandiya camp, near Jerusalem, to arrest a man and were confronted by a crowd throwing firebombs and rocks.

Witnesses said the Israeli forces opened fire and hospital officials told Reuters three men were killed.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said one of its employees, a 34-year-old father of four, was among the dead.

“Credible reports say that (Robeen Zayed) was on his way to work and was not engaged in any violent activity. He was shot in the chest,” said UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness.

A military spokeswoman confirmed that troops had been shot at and returned fire in self-defense. She added that the forces arrested the man they had come to detain.

“Large, violent crowds which significantly outnumber security forces leave no other choice but to resort to live fire for self defense,” Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, another military spokesman, said.

The riot had become “so large and violent that it was vital for forces to assist in containing it,” he added.

An Israeli security source said an investigation had showed live fire was only directed towards rioters.

PEACE TALKS CONTINUE

The U.S.-brokered peace talks carried on after the clashes, though no details emerged of the discussions.

Talks resumed last month after a three-year stalemate caused by Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967 which Palestinians seek for a state along with the Gaza Strip.

Neither party has expressed much optimism for a major breakthrough and the negotiators have met largely in secret, alternating between Israeli and Palestinian locations.

Thousands of residents of the tightly-packed camp, later carried the three men's bodies, draped in Palestinian flags with their heads wrapped in traditional black and white chequered scarves, in a funeral procession that wound its way through its narrow alleyways.

Around ten masked Palestinian militants fired their automatic weapons into the air in salute.

After the funeral, dozens of local youths threw stones towards Israeli soldiers at the Qalandiya checkpoint, a main crossing between the West Bank and Jerusalem, and they were met with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

Nabil Abu Rdaineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, described the killings as “assassinations”.

“The series of Israel crimes and new settlement tenders constitute a clear message on the real Israeli intentions towards the peace process, and there will be negative consequences to these actions,” he said in a statement.

The Israeli police arrested a local man who had previously served a nine-year prison sentence for alleged militant activity, residents said. About a dozen protesters were wounded in the clash, they added.

Israeli troops often enter Palestinian-controlled territory to detain people suspected of planning attacks, usually conducting the raids during darkness to minimize confrontation.

Violence in the West Bank has worsened since the beginning of 2013.

With Monday's deaths, Israeli forces have killed 14 Palestinians there this year, most of them in clashes, compared with three fatalities in the same period in 2012, according to United Nations figures.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Ori Lewis and Andrew Heavens

Netanyahu to address UN in September


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he will address the United Nations General Assembly next month in New York.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the Prime Minister’s Office said the Sept. 30 speech would focus on Iran. This will be the third year in a row that Netanyahu will address the United Nations.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is also expected to address the world body.

In last year’s U.N. speech, Netanyahu presented a cartoonish-looking picture of a bomb with a thick red line that he said delineated the point in Iran’s nuclear development process beyond which it must not be allowed to proceed.

Netanyahu’s 2011 address focused on peace talks with the Palestinians. He urged U.N. member states not to support the Palestinian Authority’s bid to be recognized as a non-member observer state. The Palestinian motion for a status upgrade passed anyway.

In New York, Netanyahu is expected to meet with a number of world leaders on the sidelines of the General Assembly. While a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama is possible, nothing has been finalized, according to the Post.

PRO/CON: Should Israel release prisoners for peace?


PRO: Israel should release prisoners for peace

by Yael Maizel, J Street

The headline jumped out at me as I opened the paper last Sunday to read the news: “Netanyahu releases 104 Palestinian prisoners to re-launch peace talks.” As a longtime advocate for a two-state solution, I have frequently thought about the difficult concessions and tough decisions that Israel will face along the way to peace, understanding that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require real sacrifice and compromise. But the news hit particularly close to home that day, reminding me exactly how personal and painful these sacrifices can be.

In September 1993 I was 11 years old. I remember watching the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn with my sixth grade Jewish Day School class. I remember my parents who grew up in Jerusalem amidst the war and turmoil of the 60s and 70s, explaining to my brother and I what a historic moment we were witnessing.

Read more.


CON: Israel should not release prisoners for peace

by Micah D. Halpern

Releasing Palestinian prisoners as a political gesture erodes Israel’s democratic fabric and challenges the country’s core sense of justice. Ironically, it is the dissemination of justice and the people of Israel’s faith in that justice that has kept their society together. 

The citizens of a democratic country expect and believe that evil will be punished and that good will prevail. They believe that the government they elected protects them and ensures that those who murder do not go free. The exception to that expectation occurs only when the murderer is exonerated or pardoned. And when pardons do come, society takes notice and asks if the person really did the heinous act. The pardon is the safety valve that corrects the mistakes of justice.

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Livni sees peace talks aiding Arab world alliance shift


Israel's top peace negotiator said on Friday newly resumed talks with the Palestinians also held a wider opportunity for Israel to seek alliances with Arab world moderates against militants in the Middle East.

The U.S.-brokered talks were renewed last month after a three-year standoff, the latest session on Wednesday coming amid a row over new plans by Israel to expand its enclaves in territory Palestinians want for a state.

The sides have provided little detail about the talks, hoping a lower profile may help them reach Washington's ambitious goal of reaching a deal for Palestinian statehood in nine months, despite wide gaps over key issues.

Livni, speaking after meeting about the negotiations with visiting U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on Friday, declined to say whether any progress had been made.

She said the talks have provided an opening “not only to relaunch negotiations but also to change the allies and alliances in the region.”

“I believe there are parts in the Arab world that for them relaunching the negotiations can be an opportunity to support this and to work together against the extremists,” she added, alluding to the turmoil in Egypt and Syria's civil war.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at a meeting with Ban on Thursday, the negotiations with Israelhad thus far dealt with “all the final status issues” but that it was “too early to say whether we've accomplished anything or not.”

The Arab League, Jordan and Egypt's military-led government that deposed Muslim Brotherhood rulers last month have welcomed the resumption of peace talks, also with backing from the Arab League whose 2002 peace initiative remains on the table for possible recognition of Israel after the dispute is resolved.

Israel has peace treaties with two Arab countries, Egypt, signed in 1979 and Jordan, in 1994 but remains technically at war with much of the Arab world since the conflict over Israel's founding in 1948.

BAN 'DEEPLY TROUBLED'

Ban said in his Ramallah talks with Abbas he was “deeply troubled by Israel's continuing settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.”

The U.N. chief was referring to plans for some 1,200 new housing units in the territory Israel captured in a 1967 war that Israel published ahead of this week's talks.

Ban praised Israel's release of 26 of the 104 prisoners promised under a deal that led to resuming peace talks, but expressed concern for 5,000 other Palestinians in Israeli jails, some of whom have been on intermittent hunger strikes.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said he told Ban that Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon of violating a 2006 ceasefire with activity close to Israel's border, such as weapons depots in south Lebanese villages.

Israel was worried about conflict in neighboring countries, he said in a statement released by his office: “The Middle East is in the throes of a strategic earthquake and there will be instability in the region for a long time to come.”

Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah; Editing by Jon Boyle

Abbas: Final-status issues discussed at first round of peace talks


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel and the Palestinians discussed all the final-status issues in the first session of peace talks held in Jerusalem.

Abbas’ comments were made Thursday after a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Ramallah, the Jerusalem Post reported. The first round of peace talks was held the previous day in Jerusalem under a veil of secrecy.

Abbas said he hoped the talks would be concluded within six to nine months. Final-status issues are understood to be borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, security and prisoners.

“It’s premature to say whether we have or haven’t achieved something,” Abbas said. “We hope that the coming days would bring us answers that we could present to all.”

Ban Ki-moon, who travelled to Israel on Friday to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, said in Ramallah that he hoped Israel would “create the appropriate atmosphere by halting settlements which we and the world consider illegitimate.” The Palestinians have “sincere intentions,” he also said.

But Netanyahu told him that the root of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians “doesn’t have to do with the settlements,” the Post reported. “That’s an issue that has to be resolved, but this is not the reason that we have a continual conflict. The conflict preceded the establishment of a single settlement by half a century and when we rooted out all the settlements in Gaza, the attacks continued because of this basic opposition to the Jewish State.”