RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Israeli and Palestinian politicians on Tuesday staked out "red lines" they claimed their leaders would never cross once presented with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's widely anticipated proposal for the outlines of a peace deal.
Kerry is to arrive in the region on Thursday to present a framework for peace to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although the State Department said he isn't demanding final answers during this trip, it appears both leaders face tough decisions in coming weeks.
On Tuesday, the focus was on the West Bank's Jordan Valley, a strategic area along the border with Jordan that Israeli hard-liners, including members of Netanyahu's Likud Party, say must be annexed by Israel.
The Palestinian Cabinet moved its weekly Cabinet meeting to the valley to stake its claim to the area, while the pro-settler caucus in Israel's parliament said it would dedicate a new neighborhood in an Israeli settlement in the valley.
In a sign of simmering tensions, suspected Jewish vandals set three cars on fire in a West Bank village and sprayed graffiti on a wall reading "Regards to Kerry." There has been a flurry of political declarations as Kerry prepares to present his ideas for the parameters of a peace deal. Kerry has kept his proposals under wraps, but the traditional U.S. positions on solving the conflict are known and Kerry has dropped hints, including in a policy speech earlier this month.
There has been growing expectation that Netanyahu will be asked to recognize Israel's pre-1967 war frontier as a baseline for drawing the borders of a Palestinian state, while allowing for some modifications and land swaps.
Netanyahu long has opposed this principle, apparently because it would imply Israeli readiness to give up most of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. Palestinian officials, meanwhile, fear that Kerry will ask Abbas to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Abbas has rejected this in the past, with his aides saying such recognition would mean abrogating the rights of Palestinian refugees who dream of returning to lost properties in what is now Israel. The refugees, along with their descendants, now number several million people.
Officials on both sides warned that their leaders will face widespread opposition if they concede to Kerry. Most of the Likud will reject the recognition of the pre-1967 war frontier as the starting point for border talks, said Danny Danon, Israel's deputy defense minister.
"We will not adopt the ideology of the left, even if it comes from Kerry," Danon told The Associated Press. Wasel Abu Yousef of the PLO Executive Committee said Abbas can't recognize Israel as a Jewish state at the start of the negotiating process because of the implications for the refugees. "Whatever happens, this issue is a red line we can't accept," he said.
Abbas has hinted in the past that he is not insisting that millions of refugees be resettled in Israel, but that concessions can only be made toward the end of negotiations. Dayan and Abu Yousef said they don't know what the U.S. proposal will look like.
The Palestinian Cabinet earmarked 15 million shekels ($4.3 million) for development in the Jordan Valley during its meeting there Tuesday. The meeting was meant to send "a strong message to Israel that this is our land and we will never relinquish it," government spokesman Ehab Bsaiso said.
The valley runs on the eastern edge of the West Bank and would form the future border between Palestine and Jordan. The Palestinians say they couldn't establish a viable state without the valley, which makes up one-fifth of the West Bank. Israel has insisted that it maintain some sort of presence in the area because of its strategic value.
Earlier this week, Israel's ministerial committee on legislation backed a bill seeking to annex the valley, with support from ministers in the Likud and other hard-line parties. However, the legislation is likely to be stalled indefinitely because Netanyahu does not support it.
Meanwhile, a pro-settler caucus in Israel's parliament said it would hold a dedication ceremony Thursday for a new neighborhood in the West Bank settlement Gitit in the Jordan Valley. The Yesha Council, an umbrella group for settlers, said approval for the construction was given years ago, and that construction of the neighborhood began a month ago. On Thursday, construction would be broken for one of the new homes, the council said.
The ceremony was to be attended by Interior Minister Gideon Saar and other hawkish lawmakers. Giving up the valley to a Palestinian state is a "red line," a statement said. U.S.-led negotiations on the terms of a Palestinian state began in late July and are to last for a total of nine months. Kerry has been pushing for a framework agreement that would define the endpoint of the negotiations.
Palestinian officials have said they were told by the U.S. that Kerry would like to conclude a framework deal by the end of January, yet it remains unclear if he can bridge the vast gaps between Netanyahu and Abbas.
Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Karin Laub in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.