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Kerry returns to occupied territories in bid to kick-start negotiations

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in occupied Palestine on Thursday amid conflicting reports regarding the stalemate in attempts to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It has been claimed that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to return to the negotiating table in exchange for some "goodwill gestures" from Israel. Moreover, say other reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will release around 100 Palestinian long-term prisoners. However, sources in the Israeli government denied such understandings. Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett said that Israel will not pay any price in exchange for the resumption of talks which are not, insist the Palestinians, guaranteed in any case.

Kerry's efforts in this respect have hit a wall due to the Palestinian insistence on putting an end to settlement activity and having a clear agenda based on the pre-1967 borders, and Israel's rejection of such preconditions. In recent weeks, Israeli officials have even stressed their rejection of the idea of a two-state solution, which reinforces the PA's insistence on clarity in advance of talks. The International Quartet supports Kerry's efforts, but it does not believe that they will achieve a breakthrough any time soon.

Netanyahu has negotiated at length with Kerry to exclude borders from the agenda but, apparently, Mahmoud Abbas has signalled his willingness to proceed subject to the pre-1967 borders being on the table without linking them to an end of settlement activity. This is seen by Israel as a tactic to show how "flexible" Abbas is in a bid to get US and Western support. The ruling coalition partners make it impossible for anything which impinges on the settlements or even land beyond the Green Line to be up for discussion.

According to Israeli commentators, by illustrating his "flexibility" Abbas wants to take refuge in the Arab Initiative and its most recent amendments. They also suggest that he will then be free to ask the international community to impose sanctions on Israel. Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea said that this was the reason behind Netanyahu's recent rush to make moderate comments on the issue and accuse Abbas of hindering the resumption of negotiations. However, Barnea believes that the chances of progress are slim with Netanyahu in charge.

Maariv newspaper claimed that Netanyahu is willing to provide a "goodwill gesture" asa Ramadan approaches; he may release a number of veteran Palestinian prisoners who have languished in Israeli jails since before the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. The Israeli cabinet is set to decide on this along with a freeze on settlement activity outside the main blocs, it is believed. These "concessions" will be met by Abbas who, said Maariv, will forego his insistence on the pre-1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. Western diplomats, it is reported, say that this is the formula likely to kick-start the talks.

Thus does John Kerry aspire for both sides to make public these initiatives which can be passed off as such and not as "preconditions". Netanyahu, for one, will be able to trumpet the dropping of the border issue as a major achievement, whereas Abbas will point to the release of prisoners as a milestone in the struggle of the Palestinian people. The ongoing denials emanating from the prime minister's office that Netanyahu will agree to the prisoner deal are being regarded as a bluff to keep coalition partners off his back.

It seems, therefore, that as has been leaked in advance of his visit, Kerry is likely to announce a significant breakthrough during his stay in the region. Israel Today, which is close to Benjamin Netanyahu, describes these moves as "the first signs of progress in the political process since 2010". We shall see.

The author is a Palestinian writer based in Lebanon. This article is a translation from the Arabic published in Assafir Newspaper, 26 June 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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