UPDATED: Israelis & Palestinians agree to direct peace talks. Or have they? Here’s what we know so far.

Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan.

Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan.

(Washington, D.C.) — UPDATE: Now the Palestinians are saying peace talks are not going to be starting any time soon, that Secretary Kerry’s announcement was premature, that they have not agreed to sit down with the Israelis. Yet the U.S. State Department continues to insist that the Palestinians absolutely have agreed to the talks.

Are the Palestinian leaders trying to squeeze concessions out of the U.S. and the Israelis, or are they really not interested in face to face talks with Israel? Time will tell, but for the moment it sure seems that Kerry wants these talks to happen more than PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas does.

The real question is why is Kerry investing so much effort into these talks, when the Iran nuclear crisis is coming to head, there has just been a coup in Egypt, and Syria is imploding? The Israeli-Palestinian issue is important, but aren’t there more urgent issues to deal with at the moment?

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ORIGINAL POST: After three years of rejecting direct, face-to-face peace talks with Israel — and after months of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry — the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have agreed to come back to the table to sit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Kerry in Amman, Jordan, said an agreement has been reached that “establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between” Palestinians and Israel. “This is a significant and welcome step forward,” he said.

That much is clear.

What is not clear is what both sides secretly told Kerry that led to this development.

Israeli officials are insistent that they have agreed to negotiate with no pre-conditions regarding final borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, water, or other issues. Nor have they required the Palestinians to accept Israel as a “Jewish state” before the talks even begin. The Palestinians, however, say they were promised by Kerry that the Israelis are agreeing to negotiate on the basis of returning to the pre-1967 lines. Israeli officials adamantly reject this notion, saying there is no way they are going to make such sweeping and historic concessions before the talks even begin. Most Israeli leaders in the current Netanyahu government are opposed to making such concessions at all.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • When will the talks start? They could start as early as this week here in Washington, D.C. (Haaretz)
  • How long will the talks last? 9-12 months. (Times of Israel
  • Who will represent each side? Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu envoy Yitzhak Molcho will represent the Israelis, and Saeb Erekat will represent the Palestinians. (Times of Israel)
  • Are the Israelis making any confidence-building gestures? Yes, Israel said it would release some Palestinian prisoners in phases, but only if the peace talks actually begin and it would only release prisoners arrested before the Olso Accords were signed back in the early 1990s, thus only prisoners who have served at least 20 years or more. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Are the Palestinians making any confidence-building gestures? No, not that I’ve heard of.
  • Can Netanyahu and his Cabinet sign a final status agreement with the Palestinians? Not on their own. They would first need to hold a national referendum allowing the Israeli people to vote to approve or reject such an agreement. (Israel Hayom)

To be sure, many analysts are skeptical this new effort will last long, much less bear fruit. And there is much reason for skepticism. After all, the Palestinian Authority doesn’t even control the Gaza Strip — Hamas does. Mahmoud Abbas is currently serving the eighth year of a four year term and refuses to call new elections. Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza continue to fire rockets and missiles at Israelis (fewer than before, but it still happens). On top of all this, the much more important strategic issue for Israel and the world to face is stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons and launching a “War of Annihilation” as well as a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. What’s more, the Bible says in Joel chapter three that all nations that divide the land of Israel will face the judgment of the Almighty God. Dividing Jerusalem and Judea & Samaria to create a sovereign Palestinian state would be dividing Israel and would lead to divine judgment, not blessing.

That said, I choose not to be a cynic. The Bible teaches us to want peace and to pray for it and work for it. Psalmist tells us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:6). The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Matthew 5:9). So I’m praying for peace. I am praying that the Israelis and Palestinians are one day able to live with each other in security and prosperity. I am praying that the Palestinians will have full autonomy to govern their own daily lives without interference by the Israelis. I am praying for all Israelis to be able to live free from the fear that Palestinians will create alliances with Iran and various terror groups to threaten the existence of the State of Israel. And I support all legitimate efforts to make a just and lasting peace according to Biblical principles of affirming the rights and responsibilities of all the inhabitants of the land. I would encourage you to do the same.

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