JERUSALEM – Palestinian and Israeli officials have reached an agreement that forms the basis to begin direct peace negotiations after nearly three years, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
“This is a significant and welcome step forward,” Kerry told reporters in Amman, Jordan, at the end of his week-long Middle East trip, where he shuttled between Jordan and the West Bank, meeting with Arab and Palestinian leaders.
Kerry did not visit Jerusalem on the trip, but President Obama spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. The White House said Obama urged the Israelis “to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible.”
Both parties seem willing to move quickly on the next step. Kerry said Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat are expected to join him in Washington for more talks “in the next week or so,” at which time further announcements will be made.
Kerry stressed that details about the agreement would be kept quiet, while also praising the leadership of Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry said he will be the only one to speak publicly about progress made in the negotiations.
“All of us know that candid private conversations are the very best way to preserve the time and the space for progress and understanding when you face difficult, complicated issues such as Middle East peace,” he said. “The best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private.”
In response to Kerry’s comments, Palestinian presidency spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a statement, “as a result of the meetings and long discussions with President Abbas in the last few days, progress was made that allows reaching an agreement on the principles that would allow resumption of negotiations.”
The conservative Likud Party lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi told Israeli radio earlier on Friday, “Israel can never return to the 1967 borders,” but once the negotiations resume everything should be up for discussion.
“We reject Palestinian dictates as preconditions for being willing to hold a dialogue with us,” Hanegbi said. He described the discussions as “the classic model of a tango.”
“One step forward, two steps back,” he added.
Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Zev Elkin also told Israel Radio on Friday that “a negotiation in which you first say what you are willing to give up is not the kind of negotiation that leads to good results in the Middle East.”
Still, both sides have praised Kerry’s commitment to the Mideast process, a top priority since beginning his tenure as secretary of state, when he has made six trips to the region.
Direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians have occurred on and off for decades, and have been completely suspended for more nearly three years.
“Secretary Kerry has done a tremendous job in trying to put both sides together,” Yair Lapid, the Israeli minister of finance, told The Associated Press. “Of course, Israel is more than willing and has expressed its agreement to go back to the negotiation table, but apparently it’s going to take a little more time.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.