RAMALLAH, West Bank — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is closing in on an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to relaunch peace talks for a period of six to nine months, Palestinian officials said today.
While a deal is not yet in place, the Palestinians said their president, Mahmoud Abbas, is pleased with the progress and hopeful a formula can be reached to begin what would be the first substantive peace negotiations in nearly five years. Kerry announced this week that he had significantly narrowed the gaps between the sides and would soon return to the region to try to wrap up the deal.
Since taking office early this year, Kerry has been shuttling between the sides in search of a formula for resuming negotiations.
The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The last round of talks broke down in late 2008.
The Palestinians have demanded that Israel stop building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem before negotiations begin. They see the continued construction of settlements, home to more than 500,000 Israelis, as a sign of bad faith that makes it increasingly impossible to partition the land. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The Palestinians also want Israel to commit to base its final border with a future Palestinian on its 1967 frontiers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says negotiations should begin without any preconditions.
Two Palestinian officials familiar with the negotiations said that Kerry has floated a compromise in which Israel would freeze settlement construction outside of major "blocs" that Israel expects to keep. These blocs are mostly located along Israel's pre-1967 border.
"Kerry is trying to pave the way for relaunching the peace process. He is serious and we encouraged him. He made progress and we hope he can conclude a deal in the coming week," said one official.
While Israel would not explicitly commit to returning to its 1967 lines, negotiations would be based on a May 2011 policy speech by President Barack Obama. That speech called for a border based on the 1967 lines, with modifications based on mutually agreed "land swaps," while also urging the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Abbas has repeatedly rejected Israeli calls to recognize the country as the Jewish state, fearing it would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees displaced from properties inside Israel.
Kerry's plan also calls on Israel to release about 100 of the longest-held Palestinian prisoners in its jails in several stages, and envisions a $4 billion international investment plan, conducted in various stages, to develop the struggling Palestinian economy.
The idea would be that within six to nine months the sides could pursue an agreement on all outstanding matters, including final borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and resolving the competing claims to east Jerusalem.
The Palestinian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media. Kerry has ordered both sides to remain quiet in order not to disrupt the negotiating process.
The officials said Abbas has not yet accepted Kerry's proposal, and is still pushing for a complete halt to settlement construction. But earlier this week, Abbas announced he was "optimistic" about Kerry's efforts.
Israeli officials had no immediate comment.