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Analysis: Israel, Palestinians face hard choices

Thursday - 1/2/2014, 4:54am  ET

Palestinians hold national flags near Israeli border police during a demonstration over a proposed Israeli bill seeking to annex the Jordan valley, near the West Bank town of Jericho, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. Israeli hard-liners, including members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, have said the West Bank's Jordan Valley, a strategic area along the border with Jordan, must be annexed by Israel. The Palestinians said they couldn't establish a viable state without the valley, which makes up one-fifth of the West Bank. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

KARIN LAUB
Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returns to the region Thursday, the American message to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders is clear: It's time to start making hard decisions.

Kerry is bringing his own ideas for the outlines of a peace deal, and early indications are that the plan will include hard-to-swallow choices for both sides.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely have to recognize Israel's pre-1967 war frontier as the starting point for border talks with the Palestinians, an ideological reversal that would put him on a collision course with his hardline base.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas fears he'll be pressured to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a step he believes would abrogate the rights of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

A senior State Department official said Kerry would not impose ideas or seek final answers on this trip. Instead, he is allowing time for debate during the visit, which includes meetings with Netanyahu on Thursday and Abbas on Friday.

However, the official suggested that the leaders will eventually have to decide whether they are on board and that qualified acceptance watered down by reservations is not sufficient.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resumed last summer, and just four months remain until a U.S.-set target date for a final agreement.

Underlying the ongoing impasse is the lack of agreement on ground rules. Kerry hopes that progress will be possible once the two sides agree on the outlines of a deal.

Kerry has kept his ideas for a framework under wraps, but has said the contours of a deal are known after two decades of intermittent negotiations.

The U.S. says a Palestinian state should be established alongside Israel, with the border between them based, with some modifications, on Israel's 1967 frontier, before it captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek all three areas for their state, but agree to minor land swaps.

"I think that if you're going to be realistic about what the solution is, it's hard to see how you can end up anywhere else than there," the State Department official said Tuesday.

Netanyahu has so far refused to accept the 1967 lines as a reference.

Doing so would imply Israeli willingness to partition Jerusalem and its sensitive religious sites, give up most of the West Bank and uproot tens of thousands of close to 600,000 Israeli settlers living on occupied land. Such ideas are anathema to Israel's right-wing, including many in Netanyahu's Likud Party.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, following a dramatic decision by Israel's most famous hawk, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Netanyahu has sent conflicting signals, accelerating settlement plans in recent months but also telling Likud legislators this week that a leader is measured by his ability to make tough decisions.

Trying to divine Netanyahu's intentions has become a national obsession.

Ofer Shelah, a legislator in the centrist Yesh Atid party, Netanyahu's largest coalition partner, said Netanyahu is still hedging.

"There aren't any signs that he already made a Sharonian decision and is moving toward it," said Shelah. Still, Netanyahu is aware of the risks of a collapse of the negotiations, including Israel's growing international isolation, Shelah added.

Others said Netanyahu is struggling with the decision.

"If he decides to say yes to the '67 lines, he has to say no to his party," said commentator Akiva Eldar, who writes for the regional news website Al-Monitor. "This is as difficult (for him) as it is for ... an Orthodox Jew to eat pork on Yom Kippur. It goes against everything he believes in."

Those favoring a partition deal say Netanyahu can move forward even without the support of his political allies. Opposition lawmakers have said they would support him.

"It depends on one person, the prime minister," said Meir Shetreet, a former Likud legislator and now the parliamentary chairman of Hatnua, the dovish party of chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni. "If he accepts it, he will have the full support of a majority in the Knesset and (the) majority of the people."

An opinion poll Wednesday indicated that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but that support drops when respondents are given specifics to ponder.

Meanwhile, Israel TV's Channel 2 reported that the government, responding to U.S. pressure, has canceled a decision to announce this week that it is promoting building plans for 1,400 more settlement apartments.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined comment. Dani Dayan, a settler leader, said the announcement was postponed, but would be made soon.

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