For Kerry, little new traction as yet another visit to Israel awaits

June 24, 2013

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has been unable to win quick agreement for new peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and as he returns to Israel this week, the sense of momentum surrounding his signature effort is fading.

Kerry had hoped to announce earlier this month that both sides were ready to return to the negotiating table after a lull lasting most of the past five years. He never set a firm deadline but had asked both sides in the spring to give him a couple of months to get talks going.

He will use his fifth visit to Israel as secretary this week to keep up the pressure, but he comes with little new traction.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is dragging his feet, resisting strong U.S. pressure to drop his conditions for new talks but fearing that he will be blamed if the effort fails. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed in principle, though others in his coalition government remain firmly opposed to talks or a separate Palestinian state.

“I think we should stop negotiating about the negotiations. I think we should just get on with it,” Netanyahu said in an interview last week with The Washington Post.

There were unconfirmed reports on Israel’s Channel 2 late Monday that Abbas had agreed to talks, but the Palestinian Authority did not indicate that its position had changed.

Tough path for Kerry

If Kerry cannot show progress soon, his leverage as a peace broker could wither. He has said that he will not wait forever or waste his time, but he is caught in a familiar Mideast cycle of litigating the terms of a negotiation before it begins — exactly what he said had killed past peace initiatives.

Israeli officials squarely blame Abbas for the delay, but U.S. officials are trying to show more patience.

Abbas would find his position undermined among the more hard-line members of his political coalition if he appeared to cave to U.S. and Israeli demands at the outset. It will not help eventual negotiations if Abbas enters them weak, U.S. officials said.

Although U.S. officials insist that it is not a snub, Kerry is not planning to go to Ramallah, the seat of the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank, during his 11-day trip through eight countries. He plans to see Abbas in Jordan, where the longtime Palestinian leader has a home.

In a gesture to Kerry, Palestinians had shelved plans to do an end run around peace talks by seeking further international recognition at the United Nations and elsewhere. Abbas has said the moratorium on those plans would expire this month.

Israel, doing its part to give Kerry elbow room to get talks resumed, had observed an undeclared moratorium on housing expansions on Palestinian land until earlier this month, but it said recently that it would go ahead with plans to build more than 1,000 homes in two isolated West Bank settlements.

Abbas’s government warned Kerry recently not to pressure or hurry the Palestinian leader, while Netanyahu said Abbas may squander Kerry’s effort.

Kerry has repeatedly warned that this may be the last chance for a deal that gives the Palestinians a separate state. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who came close to a deal in 2008, said the same thing during a recent visit to Washington.

“The secretary would not have returned as many times as he had if he didn’t think that there was an opportunity here,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said this month. “There have been positive comments from both sides about the openness to continuing the discussions, and we’ll see if we get to the point where both sides make the tough decisions to move back to the table.”

Although Kerry and President Obama have said that they will not present an “American plan” for peace, Kerry has been at work on something very close to that, said Arab and other officials familiar with his effort. The State Department has declined to give details.

‘It’s a border dispute’

Influential Arab leaders have urged Kerry to “define the end game first,” by establishing clear U.S. principles for the deal at the outset, and then settle borders quickly, a senior Arab diplomat said. That would require a strong U.S. hand in setting the terms for negotiations and keeping both sides at the table.

“We have always maintained that it’s a border dispute. You fix the border and you fix the dispute,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the message delivered in private to Kerry and other U.S. officials.

Palestinians claim the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip for their future state. All were captured by Israel in 1967.

The short-term U.S. goal is new peace talks without the baggage of “preconditions,” or requirements that either side must meet before discussions can begin.

The larger goal is a fast agreement — ideally, within a year or so — that draws permanent borders on the West Bank. The newly independent Palestinian state would have full international diplomatic recognition.

The agreement would establish separate areas of jurisdiction in Jerusalem, probably with international administration; resolve claims of Palestinian families that left homes in what is now Israel when the Jewish state was founded; and provide new security assurances to Israel. Those issues are well understood by both sides and have been the subject of past negotiations.

It is unclear how Kerry would address the split between Abbas’s moderate Fatah party and the militant Hamas faction that rules Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The two Palestinian territories, which sit on opposite sides of Israel, were supposed to be linked by a road or tunnel under previous peace proposals. Neither Israel nor the United States will bargain with Hamas, so the Gaza leadership would not be included in new direct talks.

Arab states gave Kerry an early boost by reaffirming their offer for a comprehensive regional peace deal with Israel under its pre-1967 borders. The Arab League also sweetened the offer by saying publicly that those borders could be adjusted by mutually agreed land swaps.

Kerry has lobbied Abbas hard to return to talks without preconditions, but the Palestinian leader has insisted that he needs more assurances from the United States and Israel that the talks would begin in good faith. Although his public demands are broader, Abbas is chiefly seeking the release of Palestinian prisoners long held by Israel, officials familiar with the effort said.

Israel has considered a good-faith gesture beyond the unofficial building hiatus, but recent statements suggest that Netanyahu is hardening his position.

“Secretary Kerry is undertaking an effort to resume direct negotiations without preconditions,” Netanyahu said Thursday, during a meeting with the visiting European Union foreign policy chief. “That’s the right thing to do. Israel is ready to resume these talks without preconditions today, yesterday and tomorrow. I hope that President Abbas will do the same.”

After a briefing from Abbas on Kerry’s latest efforts, the Fatah party warned last week against “all forms of pressure” and hinted that it could resume efforts to seek international recognition outside of negotiations. That effort, strongly opposed by Israel, has been on hold while Kerry pursues talks.

The Palestinian Authority is likely to renew those international efforts at the annual U.N. General Assembly session in September if there is no agreement to begin negotiations by then.

Michele Dunne, a senior Mideast expert at the Atlantic Council, said Kerry is trying several gambits at once. He is pushing private-sector development to boost the West Bank’s struggling economy, dispatching retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen to explore possible security upgrades for Israel and pushing the Arab League peace plan as a template. Perhaps at least one will yield talks of some sort, Dunne said.

“Talks have a certain value for their own sake, but it is not at all clear whether talks would lead to a breakthrough under the current discouraging political conditions on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides,” she said.

Ruth Eglash and William Booth in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post.
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