Kerry’s nine-month quest for Middle East peace ends in failure


Secretary of State John F. Kerry, left, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, revived a brand of Middle East shuttle diplomacy that included a hundred closed meetings in a half-dozen world capitals. (Brendan Smialowski/AP)

Nine months after it began, the Obama administration’s marquee diplomatic effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians ended Tuesday with neither a whimper nor much of a bang.

The initiative pressed by Secretary of State John F. Kerry revived a brand of Middle East shuttle diplomacy made popular in the disco era and included a hundred closed-door meetings in a half dozen world capitals. But the talks reached their expiration date with each side blaming the other (and the United States) for the impasse and saying that neither saw a true partner for peace in the other.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday that it was time to shift attention away from the failed peace talks and toward what he called a more urgent priority — the threat posed by Iran.

The Middle East talks finally collapsed last week after the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamic militant organization Hamas signed a pact promising a new united government in five weeks and a presidential election in seven months.

The Palestinians argue that Israel was looking for an excuse to end the talks and found cause in that reconciliation between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which controls politics in the West Bank. The two factions split in 2007 after Hamas seized power in Gaza.

“Israel never gave the negotiations a chance to succeed,” said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, on Tuesday. “If this Israeli government were sincerely interested in peace,” he said, “it would have taken Palestinian national reconciliation as an opportunity for peace rather than an opportunity for a new blame game.”

The United States and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization. Hamas does not recognize Israel, and the Hamas military wing and the Israel Defense Forces have fought two short but intense wars in the past six years.

“We’re not going to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas unless Hamas changes its position and says it’s willing to recognize Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry planned no statement to mark the end of talks.

Asked whether the investment was worth it, Psaki said, “No regrets.”

The talks were often described by Kerry as intended to fulfill the goal of “two nations for two peoples living side by side in peace and security.” But according to participants from both sides, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators never even got to the point of jointly reviewing a map that might have served as a starting point for drawing future borders.

On Sunday, Netanyahu marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with a speech that did not mention the peace talks but instead warned that 2014 reminded him of the 1930s and the rise of Hitler in a Nazi Germany that he compared to Iran.

On Tuesday, Netanhayu met with foreign correspondents in Jerusalem and seemed frustrated that their attention was not focused on Iran and its nuclear program.

“Despite the international preoccupation with Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapons capability is advancing before our eyes,’’ Netanyahu said. “If this materializes, it will have enormously negative consequences for peace in the Middle East and for the entire world.”

Chief U.S. envoy Martin Indyk has returned to the United States after spending much of the past nine months shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank. The State Department has announced no plans for his return.

With the Palestinian government in limbo, there were no signs that either the White House or the State Department would resume any intensive effort.

“We’ll see what the parties decide over the coming weeks and months,” Psaki said on Monday. “We’ve talked about the difficult choices that still need to be made, the unhelpful steps both parties have taken, and the fact that we still see a benefit and an opportunity. So we’ll see what the parties do.”

In July, when Kerry launched the diplomatic quest that would consume his first year as secretary of state, his goal was to achieve final-status agreement on all the core issues — how to guarantee Israeli security, draw borders for a future Palestine, and decide the fate of the Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem.

In November, after six months of talks produced no movement between Israel and the Palestinians, Kerry and his team tried to create a framework agreement that would outline in general terms solutions to the core issues.

When Kerry failed to get the two sides to agree to his framework proposals, the final months were devoted to extending talks through the end of 2014, or “talking about how to keep talking,” as one U.S. diplomat put it.

The talks reached a crisis point when Israel balked at releasing, as promised, a fourth and final batch of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners. The Israelis said they never agreed to release Arab Israelis who were on the final list. For that, they demanded the Palestinian leadership agree to continue talks.

Instead, the Palestinians signed 15 treaties and conventions overseen by the United Nation and other international bodies, something they had promised not to do while negotiations were ongoing.

Finally, on Tuesday, a watchdog group that monitors the growth of Jewish settlements on lands claimed by Palestinians for a future state reported that during the nine months of talks, Israel promoted plans and tenders for 13,851 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The average yearly number of tenders was four times greater than the number in previous years, according to the group, Peace Now.

The Israeli government said almost all of the construction and planning ocurred in either East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed, or in communities in the so-called settlement blocs, which would remain under Israeli control in any peace deal.

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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