Less than three weeks after his last visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to arrive in Israel on Wednesday night and will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday.
Ahead of Kerry's arrival, a U.S. State Department official told The Associated Press that during the trip, Kerry will try to bring Netanyahu and Abbas to an agreement on a framework for a permanent peace deal. The official said Kerry would try to bridge gaps between the sides, but said that a "big breakthrough" should not be expected during the trip.
Meanwhile, a State Department official told Reuters that the U.S. may not agree to lengthen the time frame for negotiations past the allotted nine months. Kerry hopes the talks this week will guide the sides toward a deal in April, the official said.
Kerry's apparent goal is to consolidate principles agreed upon by both sides, which would indicate progress and allow for the negotiations to be extended by a year. The outline Kerry is expected to present will include clauses on deeply divisive core issues that Kerry will either change or pass over during his meetings with both sides.
If a workable framework is not produced during this visit, Kerry's 12th to the region as secretary of state, he will leave the negotiations to the Israeli team, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and the Palestinian team, led by Saeb Erekat. If that too does not produce progress, Kerry is expected to return to the region again in about two weeks.
The tough questions in the draft
The framework draft has not been made public, but according to unofficial information that has reached Israeli ministers and MKs, the agreement will include an announcement that the permanent borders of a Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, and that the Palestinians will recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Other clauses are expected to ensure that a future Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that Israel's security will be protected. Israel will also ask to include a clause recognizing its right to defend itself.
On the issue of the Jordan Valley, the terminology of the Israeli position has referred to maintaining "an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley," not offering clarification on whether the "presence" will be permanent or temporary, and if temporary, for how long.
The framework proposal is also expected to address the Palestinian refugee issue, granting refugees the right of return only to Palestinian territories, as well as the need to establish a Palestinian capital in "the Jerusalem area." It is still unclear if these issues will be included, due to how divisive and sensitive they are.
It is also unclear whether the framework agreement will be brought before the government to allow for ministers to express reservations, as was done by Ariel Sharon's government.
The settlement construction announcement that was expected to come after this week's prisoner release still has not been made, and it is believed that it may be postponed until after Kerry's visit.
Speaking in Tiberias on Tuesday at the seventh annual Galilee Conference organized by the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, Netanyahu said, "Peace will be possible only when we ensure our own security and settlement interests. There will be peace only if we can defend ourselves, by ourselves, against any threat."
Livni said Kerry "is determined to help us help ourselves" and that "the majority must support a prime minister who is promoting an agreement and take to the streets [to show this support]."
President Shimon Peres said, "Israel's greatest strategic strength is a peace agreement."
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel said, "The Jordan Valley will remain in Israeli territory forever."
'The settlements are a cancer'
In a speech on Tuesday celebrating the 49th anniversary of the Fatah movement, Abbas said, "We will not remain patient as the settlement cancer spreads, especially in Jerusalem, and we will use our right as a U.N. observer state by taking political, diplomatic and legal action to stop it."
The PA held a meeting in the Jordan Valley village of Ein al-Beida on Wednesday, in protest against the Ministerial Committee for Legislation's recent approval of a bill to annex Jewish areas in the Jordan Valley.
Meanwhile, three vehicles were set on fire and walls were spray-painted with slogans including "Regards to John Kerry. To be continued," in the Palestinian village of Dura al-Kara early Tuesday in a suspected price-tag attack by right-wing Israeli extremists. The nationalist crimes division of the Judea and Samaria District Police has opened an investigation into the incident.
Following Kerry's visit, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are each expected to visit Israel over the next month.