With marathon talks, Kerry shows zeal on Middle East peace


Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, speaks with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Friday before their dinner meeting in Jerusalem. Kerry shuttled between Israelis and Palestinians Friday in his latest diplomatic mission. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

No one will ever be able to say John Kerry didn’t try hard enough.

Whether he brings the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table or ultimately fails where so many have failed before him, Kerry seems a man obsessed. Currently on his fifth trip to the region since becoming secretary of state in February, he met Friday afternoon with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just 15 hours after the two had ended marathon talks that extended well past midnight.

Between the two sessions with Netanyahu, Kerry drove in a convoy across the West Bank to Amman, Jordan, where after taking a nap, he had a lunchtime meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Jordanians, whose King Abdullah II has served as a valued consultant, brought him back here in a military helicopter.

“So soon,” Kerry told Netanyahu with a grin for the cameras. They sat in the same chairs in the same suite at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel. Same handshake. Different ties.

On Saturday, Kerry returned to Amman, where he spent two hours with Abbas, and then flew back to Jerusalem for another evening session with Netanyahu. Kerry aides declined to characterize the Abbas session and did not comment on frenzied reports in local media that ran the gamut from rumors that Kerry was about to announce four-way talks, including Jordan, to assurances that his initiative was on the rocks because the Palestinians would not give up preconditions for talks.

In the past week, Kerry has wrestled with Arab allies over Syria, consulted on possible negotiations with Afghanistan’s Taliban and weighed in on the Edward Snowden controversy. His last stop on the 13-day, eight-country trip is a meeting next week with Asian foreign ministers in the sultanate of Brunei.

But it is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that clearly drives him. It is here, according to friends, colleagues and some of the recipients of his zeal, that Kerry has marshaled a lifetime of foreign policy experience, relationships and political lessons, and hopes to find his legacy.

Kerry has announced plans for a $4 billion program to jump-start the Palestinian economy, and he joined Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in appointing retired general John Allen, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, as a special envoy on Israeli security issues. He believes that his approach — a combination of security and diplomatic guarantees, plus the economic proposal — should be irresistible to both sides.

The Israelis and Palestinians have resisted similar inducements by previous secretaries of state for decades. Some cynics roll their eyes at Kerry’s passion and wonder if he is living in a could-have-been world after his presidential defeat in 2004. While President Obama has strongly embraced the peace process, a distracted White House has made little public input into Kerry’s efforts.

But a senior administration official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity about high-level relationships and high-stakes diplomacy, said that it was Obama who had given Kerry the green light to forge ahead.

While he couldn’t guarantee success, Obama said in a March news conference in Amman, “what I can guarantee is that we’ll make the effort. What I can guarantee is that Secretary Kerry is going to be spending a good deal of time in discussions with the parties.”

Among the things that Kerry believes make this time different is the urgency of the situation. The area is engulfed in crises that threaten to spill over borders; international weariness of what is seen as Israel’s intransigence has grown, manifested in a disinvestment movement and dwindling sympathy in Europe; and the Palestinians have been unable to put their political and economic house in order. This has led Kerry to warn repeatedly that the “window is closing” for meaningful talks.

A personal touch

Kerry also has enormous faith in his own energy and skill in face-to-face diplomacy. He also counts as assets a lifetime in politics and the relationships built with nearly all the players in the Middle East — including Netanyahu and Abbas — during the decades he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including four years as chairman during Obama’s first term.

“Obviously, he’s personally invested,” said a second senior State Department official. “He wants these guys to feel as if he understands this situation from their perspective, from both sides,” the official said. “Part of what he’s doing here is listening. Then he wants them to understand his perspective. ”

If nothing else, Kerry has clearly impressed his interlocutors with his persistence.

“The Palestinians know John Kerry very well,” chief Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said in a recent interview. “We know him, and he knows us,” and he would not spend all his time shuttling back and forth if he didn’t believe he could get the Israelis to the table, Rudeineh said.

Israeli politicians, regardless of what they might think of possible negotiations, say that Kerry has treated Israel with respect and understanding and that his heart is in the right place.

“Kerry has spent a lot of time and a lot of his prestige on this,” said Dan Meridor, a former intelligence minister, who said he thought Kerry was “a few steps” ahead of Obama on the issue.

Meridor said he thinks Kerry will get the two sides to sit down and talk. “I think the risks are too high for them not to begin negotiations,” he said, although whether the talks go anywhere is another matter.

Foundations of a plan

Kerry’s plan has many echoes of past efforts. A major part of its foundation is a reinvigorated Arab initiative from 2002 that guarantees Israeli security, holds out the promise of diplomatic relations and offers a resolution to the thorny issue of Palestinian rights to return to land in what is now Israel.

Kerry’s move with Hagel to appoint Allen as a special envoy came last month, and it echoed a decision by the George W. Bush administration in 2007 to recruit retired general James L. Jones — former supreme allied commander in Europe and later Obama’s first national security adviser — for a similar mission.

Kerry introduced his plan for a $4 billion program to support the Palestinian economy in a May speech to the World Economic Forum in Jordan. He has recruited U.S. business leaders to develop models for Palestinian growth and a regional economy that could benefit Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan.

One senior U.S. diplomat, a veteran of many previous efforts to forge a sustainable peace here, said he admired Kerry’s passion and hoped he would be able to maintain it against high odds.

Both Abbas and Netanyahu are juggling internal political challenges, and the proof of their willingness to do what it may ultimately take to find a long-term solution has yet to be seen.

But despite skepticism born of experience, some regional players seem to have grown enthusiastic about Kerry’s efforts.

“All of us admire your investment in creating really the right environment,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said when Kerry arrived for a meeting after a three-hour session with Netanyahu.

“I believe you have already created this environment,” he said. “I know that it is difficult. There are many problems, but as far as I’m concerned I can see how . . . there is a clear majority for the peace process, a two-state solution, and a great expectation that you will do it and that you can do it.”

William Booth contributed to this report.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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