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Amid increased violence, Kerry meets with Israeli and Palestinian leaders

Benjamin Netanyahu, John Kerry

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Nov. 24 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.

(Atef Safadi / Associated Press)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry held separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Tuesday in a bid to curb the persistent wave of violence that erupted two months ago.

This is Kerry’s first visit with the two leaders on their home turf in over a year since the last round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke down in the spring of 2014. The parties declare they remain committed to the two-state solution but neither side appeared to expect a big push to resume talks at this point.

“There can be no peace when we have an onslaught of terror, not here or not anywhere else in the world,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Kerry in Jerusalem ahead of their meeting, which took place in the aftermath of two fatal attacks this week.

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Drawing a parallel between attacks on Israelis and those elsewhere as the “same assault by militant Islamists and the forces of terror,” Netanyahu urged the international community to support Israel’s efforts against militants. “It’s everyone’s battle,” he said.

Noting that he was arriving at a time that was “very troubled,” Kerry condemned the ongoing attacks.

“No people anywhere should live with daily violence, with attacks in the streets with knives or scissors or cars,” he said, adding that Israel has “every right in the world” to defend itself.

Kerry said he and the Israeli leader would discuss ways of pushing back against violence and to “find a way forward, to restore calm and to begin to provide the opportunities that most reasonable people” everywhere seek for themselves and their families.

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In addition to the local unrest, Kerry referred to the turmoil engulfing the wider region. “We are deeply concerned about Syria, about Daesh, about regional unrest,” the secretary said, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State militant group. It was in everyone’s interest to work together against the violence “interrupting too much of the daily life of too many nations,” he said.

Kerry later met for two hours with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for Abbas, said Kerry reiterated his country’s support for the two-state solution and called for restoring calm in the area.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas handed Kerry five files that have to do with the recent wave of violence in the Palestinian territories and Israel.

Kerry was met upon arrival in Ramallah with dozens of Palestinians who were demonstrating against his visit. They carried banners saying “Kerry is not welcome” and “The U.S. must stop its support to organized Israeli terrorism.”

The Palestinians were protesting statements Kerry made in Israel in which he described the Palestinian attacks against Israelis as terrorism.

In advance of the Ramallah meeting, Rudaineh said Palestinians were expecting Kerry to provide clear American and Israeli answers as to whether Israel remained committed to the two-state solution and to serious efforts on drawing future borders and resolving core issues including Jerusalem.

In his recent meeting with President Obama, Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution. However, he has also repeated in recent months that it is not on the table at this point.

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In recent months, Israeli officials have indicated plans to improve economic and overall living conditions for Palestinians, including infrastructure projects such as the agreement signed last week to allow long-awaited 3G cellular network in the West Bank and Gaza.

Reportedly, the U.S. was pushing for more meaningful gestures, such as increasing the Palestinians’ responsibilities in the so-called Area C that constitutes around 60% of the West Bank and is under exclusive Israeli control, both security and civilian. The arrangement was part of the Oslo accords reaching during the 1990s.

According to the Hebrew daily Haaretz, in return for these and other gestures to the Palestinians, Netanyahu seeks U.S. recognition of construction in the Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank, areas that house the majority of settlers and which Israel seeks to keep in a future agreement.

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It was not clear if this suggests willingness to freeze construction elsewhere, or to signal which West Bank areas Israel would agree to part with. Even centrist doves in opposition to Netanyahu, such as Isaac Herzog’s Labor party, are largely in support of holding onto the main settlement blocks.

Responding to a question while addressing the Center for American Progress in Washington this month, Netanyahu did not entirely rule out a unilateral move as a “Plan B.” “I supposed that is possible,” he said, adding that this would have to meet Israeli security criteria, such as retaining security control in areas west of the border with Jordan.

After his remarks raised concern among hawks in his government, Netanyahu made clear that he did not support a unilateral withdrawal and did not intend to remove settlements.

Speaking in Jerusalem last week, Netanyahu reiterated his strong preference for bilateral, negotiated moves, but would not elaborate. “There are all sorts of unilateral moves … wait and see. And they are not necessarily in the direction you think,” the prime minister added.

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This time his comment was interpreted by some as a hint at annexation, although others — such as Yossi Beilin, one of the Israelis involved in negotiating the Oslo accords — think Netanyahu will ultimately withdraw from much of the West Bank.

Responding to reports that Israel might grant the Palestinians a greater role in running affairs in Area C, hard-line Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel said the transfer of any land to Palestinian control, especially under terror, constitutes “a red line” that might merit his Jewish Home party to quit Netanyahu’s coalition.

Special correspondents Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Abukhater in Ramallah.

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