Kerry Finalizing U.S. Team for Peace Talks

July 22, 2013  

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is finalizing his selection of a team to help shepherd Middle East peace talks on a day to day basis, a U.S. official said Monday, according to AFP.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would neither confirm nor deny reports that a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, has been chosen to head up the U.S. negotiating team.

In Amman on Friday — at the end of his sixth trip to the region — Kerry announced that Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders have agreed in principle to return to talks frozen for three years.

Israeli negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and her PA counterpart Saeb Erekat are due to travel to Washington within the coming days to start the talks.

“This is the first time in years the official negotiators for both sides have publicly agreed to meet at this level,” Psaki told reporters, according to AFP.

She could not give a precise date for the resumption of talks, saying U.S. officials had been “in touch with both parties over the course of the last couple of days, but I don’t have an update on the logistics of the date yet.”

“Right now we are pursuing the way forward. There has been a great deal of work, compromise and sacrifice leading to this point,” Psaki said.

She stressed she was going to respect Kerry’s commitment to keep the details of the negotiations secret in order to give them the best chance of succeeding.

Kerry was now “focused on putting together the right combination of players to work with the parties,” she said, according to AFP.

“We do expect, of course, to have a senior team in place, but no decision on a negotiator or envoy has been made.”

Psaki said the talks are “going to be a challenging process. (Kerry) can’t carry it all on his own shoulders day in and day out. And that’s why he’s looking to put together a senior team.”

The State Department spokeswoman also stressed that both Israelis and PA Arabs “have made clear they want to have substantive discussions as early as possible.”

It’s likely, however, that the agenda and process will be discussed first before the two sides try to get down to the thorny details on which they remain deeply divided.

White House spokesman Jay Carney hinted that it may take even longer for the talks to resume, telling reporters: “We are working on a date for the parties to come to Washington in the coming weeks.”

He said the U.S. administration felt “very cautious optimism” about the upcoming talks, stressing that the only way “to resolve these issues is if the two parties sit down in direct face-to-face negotiations.”

Indyk, currently the head of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, is a veteran of Middle East diplomacy and was named by several U.S. media outlets as Kerry’s choice to head the U.S. team.

He was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under then president Bill Clinton and served as ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997. He then again served as ambassador to Israel from 2000 to 2001.

“Obviously he’s a very well-respected professional with a great deal of experience and background,” Psaki said when asked about Indyk’s qualifications. “But I don’t have any other updates on the personnel process,” she insisted.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed Sunday to bring any agreement he reaches with the PA to a national referendum.

“I believe this is necessary,” he said. “I do not think decision like these can be reached – if an agreement is, indeed, reached – through some kind of coalition-related maneuver. Rather, this thing needs to be brought to the nation, for it to decide.”

A Referendum Law mandating plebiscite approval for any ceding of national land already passed in the previous Knesset, but it does not currently apply to Judea and Samaria, which were never officially annexed after their liberation in 1967, and therefore fall outside the current law’s parameters.

While some have welcomed the announcement that Israel and the Palestinian Authority will resume talks, a growing number of ministers and MKs have expressed concern over the promises that Netanyahu is rumored to have made in order to win PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s agreement to negotiate.

There have been several reports regarding Netanyahu’s promises to Abbas, who formerly listed several preconditions to talks, among them the release of terrorist prisoners held by Israel and a complete ban on construction of new housing for Jews living east of the 1949 armistice line.

Some foreign papers have said that Netanyahu agreed to base talks on the “1967 lines,” meaning the 1949 Armistice Line. Others report that Netanyahu promised to free terrorist prisoners prior to his first meeting with Abbas. Some reports say Netanyahu agreed to an unofficial building freeze in Judea and Samaria, as well.

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