Kerry: Significant progress needed on Israeli-Palestinian talks

POOL/REUTERS - Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid al-hamad al-sabah (3rd L) walks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S. Sheikh Salem Abdullah Jaber al-Sabah after Kerry's meeting with the Kuwaiti Emir at Bayan Palace in Kuwait City on June 26, 2013.

AMMAN, Jordan — Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Jordan late Wednesday for another round of efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table, but he acknowledged that time was growing short and gave little indication that he expected significant progress on his fifth visit to the region in as many months.

“I’m not setting any deadlines,” Kerry said earlier in the day during a stop in Kuwait. But, he added, “we need to be showing some kind of progress” long before September, when the Palestinians take their observer seat at the U.N. General Assembly.

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“I don’t think we have the luxury of that kind of time,” he said.

Far from improving, the prospects for jump-starting Kerry’s signature foreign policy initiative appear to have worsened in recent months, as the shrinking domestic political capital of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has weakened their ability to sell a deal, assuming that one can be achieved.

Kerry’s current trip has taken him thus far to five countries in the region and has focused for the most part on Syria. But he is personally most committed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and sees it as the possible legacy of his tenure as the chief U.S. diplomat.

On Thursday, he will meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II before traveling to Jerusalem to see Netanyahu. On Friday, he will see Abbas in Jordan, and he has left open the option of a further visit to the Israeli prime minister after that.

In a news conference in Kuwait with the foreign minister, Sheik Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, Kerry denied Israeli news reports of a three-way meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas during this trip. “I know of no plans to do that,” he said. Any possible meeting between Palestinian and Israeli officials, he said, would be at lower levels.

Kerry’s goal has been for Netanyahu and Abbas to sit down together to begin setting the outline for a peace settlement along the lines of plans that have eluded U.S. governments for years — the establishment of a Palestinian state and protection of Israeli security.

Since Kerry’s last visit in May, Abbas has lost a new prime minister to resignation after three weeks, and Netanyahu has been increasingly challenged by the far right within his own governing coalition over any two-state solution with the Palestinians.

“The politics of both have been tested, as they always are in this part of the world,” Kerry said. “Both of them are very skilled veterans of the politics of their countries, and I am quite confident in their serious commitment of purpose here. . . . I would not have returned here three times,” and then again with President Obama in March, he said. “I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t have a belief that this was possible. But it’s difficult.”

“It is urgent because time is the enemy of a peace process,” Kerry added. “Time allows situations on the ground to change or to become hardened or misinterpreted. . . . It allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don’t want things to happen.”

Time, he said, also can “wear out people’s patience, feed cynicism and give people a sense of impossibility where there, in fact, is possibility.”

But it is becoming increasingly difficult to see where possibility exists. Abbas is said to have demanded a show of good faith from Israel before coming to the table, including the transfer of 120 longtime Palestinian detainees in Israel. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of Kerry’s visit, said that a spate of news reports of a pending agreement has been “wildly inaccurate” but declined to discuss any possible room for agreement before Kerry arrives.

Arab governments, whose 2002 peace proposal has been praised by the administration as a partial framework for a deal, have also grown impatient.

“We still believe in this plan,” Sabah said. “We insist on the partnership with our American friends to continue to help us. When they do so, we believe this issue will take on the importance it deserves.”

Since the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in November to grant the Palestinians non-member observer status, Abbas has acceded to U.S. wishes that he not seek membership in U.N. organizations, including the International Criminal Court, that would allow the Palestinians to pursue Israel for violations of international law connected to settlements on West Bank lands seized during the 1967 war and other matters.

The U.N. meeting in September will be an opportunity for Abbas to take that action.

On Wednesday, Israel announced plans to build dozens of new homes in a controversial East Jerusalem settlement, the Associated Press reported, despite Kerry’s calls for both sides to avoid provocative moves. Brachie Sprung, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality, said the project in the city’s Har Homa area had been approved long ago and that Wednesday’s decision merely granted the final construction permits, the AP reported.

During Kerry’s stop in Kuwait, that government also raised the issue of two Kuwaiti prisoners at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Sabah said Kuwait had already given the United States guarantees that the two could be held here securely, and he repeated them to Kerry.

“In addition to this being a humanitarian issue, we need to settle it because it will only show the depth of the relationship” between the two countries, he said.

The Kuwaitis were captured separately trying to leave Afghanistan for Pakistan and have been held for about 11 years at Guantanamo on suspicion of al-Qaeda ties. Both have joined a hunger strike in which more than half the remaining 166 detainees in the prison are participating. In March, anti-government protesters here accused the Kuwaiti monarchy of not actively working for their return.

Kerry noted that Obama has “renewed” his effort to try to close the prison and that each detainee is given a thorough review.

On whether the Edward Snowden case will undermine U.S. relations with China, Kerry said it was “way too premature to make any judgments whatsoever. We still don’t have all the facts. It obviously was disturbing that . . . the surrender treaty [sic]” with Hong Kong “wasn’t adhered to.”

The Justice and State departments are “working to ascertain precisely” what happened, he said, adding: “I’m not gong to make any judgments at this point in time.”

On Egypt, where the United States has expressed worry about anti-government demonstrations scheduled for this weekend, Kerry said: “It’s fair to say everybody is very concerned. We want Egypt to succeed. We want Egypt to be strong. Our hopes are that all parties, everybody, whether it’s the demonstrations on Friday or demonstrations on Sunday, will all engage in peaceful, free expression of their points of view and not engage in violence.”

“Clearly there are things that we wish Egypt would do at this time, in terms of its economy, in terms of its politics,” Kerry said. “They need to restore order so that tourism can return. All of these are urgent priorities.”

 
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