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Peace talks: US presses ahead

10 January 2014


Christmas joy: an altar server in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during Eastern Orthodox Christmas festivities earlier this week

Christmas joy: an altar server in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem during Eastern Orthodox Christmas festivities earlier this week

THE US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is to continue his efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians, despite the difficulties yet to be overcome. When talks resumed last July, Mr Kerry said his aim was to reach a comprehensive deal within nine months.

The prospect of an agreement before May does not appear good. But last weekend, after threedays of intensive meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Secretary of State said that he remained "as hopeful as I have been". He would go on working with both sides "with great intensity, with serious purpose, with the commitment to trying to resolve this conflict that has gone on for many years too long".

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that no one would benefit more from the successof Mr Kerry's efforts than the Palestinians, and "no one standsto lose more from failure than Palestinians. Failure, to us, is not an option. We really are doing everything humanly possible to ensure the success of Secretary Kerry."

Mr Erekat urged Israel to refrain from any acts that might "prejudice or pre-empt the outcome of permanent status negotiations, i.e. settlement activity and home demolitions".

While the status of settlements, the drawing of new borders, and the future of Jerusalem are among the most contentious issues, another obstacle has arisen over the definition of Israel and the latter's future security demands. In the opinion of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, "the Palestinians are continuing their campaign of inciting hatred, as we have seen in the last few days with their refusal to recognise Israel as a state for the Jewish people. This is the main issue that we're discussing with him [Mr Kerry]."

The Netanyahu government is also insisting that its troops must continue to be deployed in the Jordan Valley after the formation of a Palestinian state, in order to ensure Israel's security - a demand rejected out of hand by the Palestinian leadership, along with that of recognising Israel as a state exclusively for the Jews.

Mr Netanyahu has strong support for his stand on the talks with the Palestinians from the right-wing constituency in Israel, not least from the supporters of the former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for the past eight years, and whose medical condition has deteriorated sharply over recent days.

Whatever the fate of Mr Sharon, the chances are that the optimistic deadline of April for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will have to be extended, if Mr Kerry still feels hopeful of success. This would mean that talks would be continuing during a planned visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land in late May.

The Pope will visit the Jordanian capital, Amman, before going on to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he told pilgrims in St Peter's Square last Sunday. The main purpose of his visit is to commemorate the historic meeting 50 years ago between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople in the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem.

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