TEL AVIV — U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry ended three days of intensive shuttle diplomacy Sunday without achieving Israeli and Palestinian agreement to restart long-dormant peace talks, but he said that differences between the two sides had narrowed significantly.
“I am pleased to tell you that we have made real progress on the trip, and I believe that with a little more work, the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach,” Kerry said at a brief news conference at Ben Gurion Airport here.
Both Palestinian and Israeli government officials agreed that some strides were made but blamed each other for being the difficult party. The news media in Israel and the West Bank portrayed the Kerry effort as ongoing and not a defeat.
Kerry declined to specify remaining gaps, keeping to his promise of not discussing negotiation details in public, but said he was leaving staff members behind to work on them. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had asked him to return, Kerry said, and he plans to do so in the near future. Although he has refused to set a deadline, Kerry has said repeatedly that the window for talks to begin will close in the next few months.
“I am absolutely confident that . . . all of the parties are on the right path in order to get to a very good place,” he said.
After decades of aborted deals and three years since the last talks broke down, success in bringing the sides back to the table would be a significant achievement for the Obama administration, and for Kerry personally.
Although President Obama promised during his first presidential campaign to devote himself to the Middle East peace process, it proved politically and diplomatically intractable. Kerry, who worked on the issue as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during Obama’s first term, has placed it among his highest priorities during his first five months as secretary of state, despite the crises in Syria and elsewhere that have occupied much of his time.
Benjamin Rhodes, a senior national security aide traveling with Obama in Africa, said Sunday that the “time and energy” Kerry has expended on the peace process “speaks to what a high priority we place on trying to move forward.”
Despite a hoarse voice and red eyes after repeated late nights with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and days spent traveling by car, helicopter and plane to meet with Abbas in Jordan and in the Palestinian administrative capital, Ramallah, Kerry was buoyant at his airport news conference. He and his staff members erupted in smiles and applause when they boarded the plane for the next leg of a 13-day, eight-nation trip — a meeting with Asian foreign ministers in the sultanate of Brunei.
Kerry’s plan for persuading Netanyahu and Abbas to take the risk of coming to the table includes the components of virtually every failed formula in the past — security guarantees for Israel, and diplomatic and economic incentives for both Israel and the Palestinians.
But he clearly believes that the worthiness of his proposals — which teams of experts in Washington and here in the region have been working on for months — can combine with the world’s weariness of the conflict, rising unrest throughout the Middle East and his own dogged determination to make success possible.
Kerry has acknowledged that it may not work. But “I am feeling very hopeful that we have a concept that is being now fleshed out, and that people have a sense of how this might be able to go forward,” he said in Tel Aviv.
In Kerry’s wake, initial reaction on the ground was mixed. “There is some progress, but we can’t say that there’s a breakthrough,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told the Reuters news agency. Erekat attended Kerry’s final meeting of the trip, a morning session with Abbas in Ramallah hours after finishing a Jerusalem dinner with Netanyahu at about 4 a.m.
“Israel is ready to make painful territorial concessions,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said. “But not for a false peace. For a real peace that will endure, for decades, for longer.”
Steinitz blamed the Palestinian side for demanding preconditions from Israel before negotiations begin. “It is very clear, very gloomy, that the Palestinians are doing everything they can not to negotiate,” he said.
For their part, the Palestinians have pressed Netanyahu to pledge that the pre-1967 borders would form the starting point for negotiations for a new Palestinian state — a public concession that Israel has declined to make.
At his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu repeated an oft-stated mantra. “Israel is ready to begin negotiations without delay, without preconditions. We are not putting up any impediments,” he said. But no final agreement, Netanyahu pledged, would “endanger Israelis’ security,” and any final deal would be “submitted to the people for a decision.”
Both Abbas and Netanyahu face domestic political realities that make a return to negotiations difficult, let alone forging a mutually acceptable, sustainable deal.
Netanyahu presides over a restive coalition government composed of five political parties. In recent weeks, leading government figures have openly declared a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians a “dead end.”
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party and the third most powerful figure in the coalition, said this month, “Never have so many people spent so much energy on something so pointless.”
Ongoing elections within Netanyahu’s Likud party probably will increase the clout of those opposed to a two-state solution.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, a rising star in Likud, is likely to become chairman of the party’s central committee on Sunday, which will grant him power to set the party’s agenda. Danon has said that a majority of the ruling parties and many coalition members would block the creation of a Palestinian state if it ever came to a vote.
“Look at the government: There was never a government discussion, resolution or vote about the two-state solution,” Danon said in an interview with the Times of Israel newspaper.
Political analyst Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, questioned “whether Netanyahu is even a serious candidate for the peace process.”
“If Netanyahu can convince his followers in the Likud and his right-wing coalition partners that he is just going through the motions so that he can put all the blame on Abbas and keep the United States and international community happy,” Alpher said, “then the issue of his domestic status is less important.”
In a recent interview, Netanyahu pledged his seriousness of purpose. “If Secretary Kerry, whose efforts we support, were to pitch a tent halfway between here and Ramallah — that’s 15 minutes away driving time — I’m in it, I’m in the tent,” he said.
The Palestinian leader may face even more obstacles than Netanyahu. In April, his longtime prime minister, Salam Fayyad, a favorite with Western economic supporters of Israel, resigned, reportedly because of clashes with Abbas and his ruling Fatah party. Fayyad’s successor, Rami Hamdallah, lasted less than three weeks before resigning and has not been replaced.
Governance of the Palestinian territories is split between the Islamist militant organization Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which runs the West Bank. Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organization, and it remains hostile to Israel and its right to exist.
Talks to reconcile differences between Hamas and Fatah have repeatedly failed to produce a unified government.
The most recent polling by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found Palestinians despondent about the worsening economic conditions and the continued deadlock in the political process.
“These are the leaders you have,” said Dan Meridor, former Israeli intelligence minister.
Booth reported from Jerusalem. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.