When he launched a new push in July for talks aimed at achieving a “final status agreement” between Israelis and Palestinians within nine months, Kerry said the parties pledged to keep the content of the negotiations private. But details have inevitably trickled out, most recently on the question of security arrangements.
The issue centers on the strategic Jordan Valley, the strip of land running north-south, immediately west of the Jordan River. To the east lies Jordan, and beyond that Iraq and then Iran. Over decades, a succession of Israeli governments and top military officers have argued that maintaining an Israeli military buffer in the valley is essential for the nation’s future security, and periodic suggestions of some type of international presence have been shot down.
But Palestinian negotiators say a future Israeli presence along the border between the West Bank and Jordan would be an unacceptable infringement of the sovereignty of their envisaged independent state.
Kerry’s last visit was dominated by discussions over proposals drawn up by retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen relating to the security issue and presented to the two sides last Thursday.
Exactly what they entail has not been confirmed – due to the confidentiality undertakings – but leaks point to an arrangement that would see Israeli troops remain in the Jordan Valley for several years after the establishment of a Palestinian state, gradually withdrawing as the security situation allows. There was also talk of border crossings jointly manned by Israelis and Palestinians.
On Saturday Kerry referred to the issue while speaking at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum, saying that Allen “is helping us make sure that the border on the Jordan River will be as strong as any in the world, so that there will be no question about the security of the citizens, Israelis and Palestinians, living to the west of it.”
“Never before – ever – has the United States conducted such an in-depth analysis of Israel’s security requirements that arise from the potential of a two-state solution,” Kerry added.
The Palestinians are unimpressed, however. On Sunday the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee said it would not accept any proposal that excludes the Jordan Valley or entrenches “occupation.”
“We can’t accept that the airspace, borders and border crossings remain under the control of the occupiers,” it said.
And on Monday, senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo told the French news agency AFP that the U.S. security proposals were unacceptable to the Palestinians, warning they could lead to a “total failure” of the peace talks being shepherded by Kerry.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki played down the significance of Abed Rabbo’s statement.
“Well, there have been a range of comments over the course of the last few months calling these talks ‘over’ as well, but they are continuing, they’re sustained, they’re serious,” she said at a press briefing Monday.
Psaki declined to say what was being talked about regarding security arrangements but dismissed the notion that a plan or proposal had been put forward for adoption or rejection, describing the process instead as one of “ongoing discussion.”
When Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the Saban Forum by video link a day after Kerry, he did not mention the Jordan Valley directly, but did stress the importance for Israel of having its own forces responsible for its security.
“Any agreement that we make must enable us to protect the peace or conversely to protect Israel in case the peace unravels,” he said. “That often happens in our region. So there must be iron-clad security arrangements to protect the peace, arrangements that allow Israel to defend itself, by itself, against any possible threats.
“And those security arrangements must be based on Israel's own forces,” Netanyahu said. “There is no substitute for that.”