Kerry’s Day-and-Night Pursuit Reaps Fragile Mideast Talks

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A Palestinian woman throws a rock towards Israeli soldiers following a protest in the village of Kfar Qaddum, on July 19, 2013. Close

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Photographer: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images

A Palestinian woman throws a rock towards Israeli soldiers following a protest in the village of Kfar Qaddum, on July 19, 2013.

When John Kerry stepped onto his plane in Amman, Jordan, after announcing he had brokered a preliminary deal to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, his staff broke into applause.

The U.S. secretary of state has invested his prestige and much of his time, through day-and-night shuttle diplomacy in six trips over six months, in reviving negotiations that broke off in September 2010. The immediate goal is for Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to meet in Washington “within the next week or so,” Kerry told reporters on July 19.

“With formidable odds, Kerry managed through his own willfulness and determination to produce the basis for talks,” Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator and adviser to several U.S. administrations, said in an interview. “This would not have occurred without John Kerry.”

The flip side is that now “Kerry owns these talks” and must shoulder the burden of bringing Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to the table and keeping them there to negotiate a two-state solution, according to Miller, a vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. That was underscored in Kerry’s announcement, which was hedged with uncertainties.

Basis for Talks

Kerry spoke of “an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final-status negotiations.” He said plans are “still in the process of being formalized.”

If peace talks resume, they would be held against the backdrop of tumultuous changes in the Middle East in the three years since Israel and the Palestinians last negotiated. The uprisings in several Arab countries, including Egypt and Syria, have raised concern in the U.S. and the region that radical Islamists may fill the gap left by fallen or crumbling authoritarian regimes.

Egypt, one of only two Arab states that recognizes Israel, is in turmoil. Syria is engulfed in a civil war that has become a proxy for competing interests and threatens the stability of neighboring Jordan, which also recognizes the Jewish state. Israel and the U.S. have vowed military action if sanctions and negotiations fail to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Against this backdrop, Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, said it’s premature to hail a tentative agreement to restart talks as anything more than a baby step.

‘Low Bar’

It’s “a sign of just how low the bar is for expectations” that anyone would “consider going back to where we were almost three years ago as progress,” he said.

Given the political reality on both sides -- “the most pro-settlement Israeli government in a long time, alongside probably the weakest Palestinian leadership we’ve had in a long time -- it’s hard to see how we’re going to bridge the differences,” said Elgindy, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that his aim is to maintain Israel’s Jewish identity and prevent the creation of another Iranian proxy on the country’s border.

Jewish Identity

“One of the goals I set for the process itself is blocking the formation of a binational state” of Jews and Arabs, Netanyahu told his cabinet yesterday at its weekly meeting, according to an e-mailed statement from his office. The other, he said, is “preventing the establishment of another Iranian-sponsored terrorist state.” The allusion would include the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Hamas movement that’s considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Warning against “conjecture,” Kerry said that only he is authorized to discuss the terms under which negotiations would resume, and he’s not talking. Those who did comment underscored that sensitive issues have been finessed, not resolved.

Israeli Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz said in a July 20 interview with Israel Radio that the government had agreed to free a number of long-serving Palestinian security prisoners who had committed serious offenses. Steinitz said that Netanyahu hasn’t agreed to Palestinian demands to suspend construction in West Bank settlements or declare that the final settlement on borders will be based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines.

The Palestinians have committed to at least nine months of negotiations, during which they will not undertake punitive diplomatic actions against Israel in the international arena, he added.

Interim Pact

The odds of reaching a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians are slim and negotiators would do better to pursue an interim pact that leaves the issue of permanent borders for a Palestinian state to subsequent talks, the Ma’ariv newspaper cited unidentified Foreign Ministry officials as saying. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declined to comment. Palestinians in the past have rejected proposals for an interim agreement.

Kerry has held out carrots for participation: an economic investment package of as much as $4 billion for the financially troubled Palestinian Authority and help to Israel from retired U.S. Marine General John Allen, who led the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, in appraising what security measures it would need to ensure its safety under a two-state solution.

Israel’s Channel 2 TV reported yesterday that the secretary of state would name Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, to head the mediation team for the negotiations.

Choosing Envoy

While Kerry “can’t carry it all on his shoulders day-in and day-out,” no choice has been made on an envoy to lead the U.S. team being assembled for the talks, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters today in Washington.

The last negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down three years ago after Netanyahu declined to extend and expand a 10-month building freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements.

While Kerry couldn’t have engaged in his intensive Mideast diplomacy without the approval of President Barack Obama -- who spoke by phone with Netanyahu as the negotiations intensified last week -- the secretary of state has invested his own diplomatic capital in what had become a moribund effort under his predecessor, Hillary Clinton.

From U.S. interests in Africa and Asia to the Persian Gulf, Kerry said at his Senate confirmation hearing in January, “all of this is tied to what can, or doesn’t, happen with respect to Israel and Palestine.”

Diplomatic Slog

Kerry, 69, who often emphasizes his background as the son of a Foreign Service officer and his decades of meetings with world leaders when he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was undeterred by the slog of diplomacy. On his repeated visits to the region, he traveled by car, plane and helicopter to engage separately with Israeli and Palestinian officials in talks that sometimes went well past midnight.

Kerry’s visible travels to spur movement by the Israelis and Palestinians risked an impression that he wasn’t investing equal time in the crises in Egypt and Syria, Elgindy said.

“The optics are odd -- an inordinate focus on an issue that frankly isn’t a pressing priority or an open conflict,” Elgindy said.

Kerry has been working with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to arrange a conference on Syria that would include representatives of the regime backed by Russia and rebels supported by the U.S. The target date for such talks has been pushed back repeatedly, in part because rebels say they won’t negotiate so long as they lack arms they need as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces gain momentum.

Egypt Calls

Kerry also has been involved in administration deliberations on Egypt and has made multiple calls to leaders in the region to discuss that conflict. Because of the longstanding ties between the U.S. and Egyptian militaries, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has taken the lead in discussions with Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi, who led the group that deposed elected President Mohamed Mursi.

Amid all of the region’s trouble spots, Dennis Ross, a former Mideast peace envoy under President Bill Clinton, defended Kerry’s attention to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian rift because it underpins so much tension in the Mideast. “If you can stabilize one area when the rest of the region is in upheaval, you should do that,” Ross said. “That doesn’t mean you’re doing it to the exclusion of anything else.”

Kerry’s Patience

It’s better to focus energy on the peace process when there aren’t open hostilities raging between the Israelis and Palestinians, Ross said in an interview, crediting Kerry for “patience with both sides that makes it clear that he understands what’s important to them.”

Natan Sachs, an Israeli policy specialist at the Saban Center, said substantive talks have the potential to transform Israeli and Palestinian internal politics. He said they could boost the constituency for a beleaguered peace movement in Israel and strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas against the militant Hamas wing of Palestinian politics if he can show benefits from engagement with Israel.

While chances of a final deal may be small, “the payoff would be huge,” Sachs said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net; Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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