It’s crunchtime for Kerry, and a Middle East peace deal

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is trying — doggedly, relentlessly, exhaustingly — to make peace in the Middle East. And as he has shown during the past week on this, his 10th round of shuttle diplomacy in the region, he has become part broker, part bulldozer.

In hours of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry laid out what he calls a framework for a peace deal that would establish an independent Palestinian state and end a conflict dating to Israel’s 1948 creation as a nation.

He has tried to get each side to drop petty politicking and look to history. And he has made pit stops across the region — paying calls on Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Sunday — to rally support for the peace project.

Since he began his peacemaking bid, Kerry has bet that a combination of attractive proposals for each side, support and pressure from the United States and other nations, and the sheer force of his will can help make a deal that eluded past Mideast leaders and U.S. envoys.

But six months into the process, there are doubts. Netanyahu and Abbas have yet to meet face to face since Kerry wheedled and pushed them to renew stalled talks. Teams of negotiators have met about 20 times, keeping at it in the face of public frustration and finger-pointing.

With the stated aim of a deal by the end of April, it’s crunchtime — a reality that the secretary of state is trying to impress on others.

“Now is not the time to get trapped in the sort of up and down of the day-to-day challenges,” Kerry said Sunday. “This does not lend itself to a daily tick-tock. We don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the obstacles that we all know could distract us from our goal. What we need to do is lift our sights and look ahead, and keep in mind the vision of what can come if we can move forward.”

The latest trip began, not by accident, on New Year’s Day. Unless talks fall apart, Kerry is expected to shuttle repeatedly over the next four or more months in an all-out drive to complete the deal. The framework, if Kerry can sell it, would be a significant step. It is intended to be a fairly detailed architecture that addresses all the biggest obstacles to peace, including borders of a future Palestinian state and the jurisdiction of disputed Jerusalem.

“Once they have a shared vision of what that will look like, then it will become easier to finalize the details,” a senior official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss some aspects of the largely secret negotiations.

Given the long and troubled history of failed Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the Americans have been trying to describe the framework idea without sending signals that this initial agreement would be a substitute for a full peace deal.

Although it would be a placeholder or interim agreement on the way to a final deal, U.S. negotiators don’t want to call it that. In the freighted terminology of the Middle East, an “interim agreement” connotes failure and invites skepticism among Palestinians that they will be asked to settle for something less than full sovereignty.

“I want to reiterate: We are not working on an interim agreement,” Kerry said Sunday. “We are working on a framework for negotiations that will guide and create the clear, detailed, accepted road map for the guidelines for the permanent-status negotiations and can help those negotiations move faster and more effectively.”

Kerry was echoing the language of past failed attempts even as he made the point that he’s trying something new. The “road map” is a largely discarded 2002 peace plan advanced by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. And “permanent-status negotiations” is diplo-speak for the nitty-gritty of establishing a free and independent Palestine on land that Israel has occupied since 1967.

On Monday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had fun with the “framework” concept. An editorial cartoon by Amos Biderman shows Kerry, trademark coif in perfect place, trying to squeeze the scowling figures of Abbas and Netanyahu into a picture frame. They are standing too far apart to fit.

Yet, for all the sarcasm, there is hope in some quarters here. The Jerusalem Post credited Kerry for “single-handedly and with prodigious exuberance” breathing life into the peace process. “Kerry’s indefatigable efforts,” it said in an editorial, “deserve to be praised and supported.”

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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