Kerry Shows Little to Rebut ‘Cynicism’ on Mideast Talks

Secretary of State Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, holds a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Dec. 5. Photographer: Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry is approaching the halfway mark in his nine-month timetable for a Israel-Palestinian peace deal with little to show publicly to back up his optimistic statements.

He’s made eight trips since March to shuttle between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who haven’t negotiated face-to-face since Sept. 2010.

While the two leaders have pledged not to talk publicly about details, that hasn’t put a lid on criticism. Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid faulted the Palestinians for “constant stalling” tactics, and Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo said last week that Kerry’s focus on enhancing Israeli border security is premature until there’s progress in defining the borders of a Palestinian state.

Officials such as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman praise Kerry for his efforts, even as few say they expect him to succeed. The renewed talks among Israeli and Palestinian negotiators frequently have stalled, and only Kerry’s direct involvement with the leaders may be keeping the process going.

“To speak frankly, I don’t believe that it is possible in the next year” to achieve a comprehensive solution, and it is important not to create unrealistic expectations, Liberman, a Netanyahu ally who returned to the post last month after being acquitted on charges of fraud and breach of trust, said Dec. 6 at a conference in Washington. He has been outspoken in doubting the prospects for negotiations that resumed in late July through Kerry’s mediation after a three-year impasse.

Public Optimism

Leaving Israel last week, Kerry said the people who really know what is going on aren’t talking, and “the fact there is not a lot of information coming out doesn’t mean the talks aren’t being productive.”

The top U.S. diplomat spent more than eight hours over two days with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and more than three hours with Abbas in Ramallah in the West Bank. He also met briefly with Lapid in Jerusalem.

“We are closer than we have been in years” to a peace accord, Kerry told reporters at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. He said he would return to Israel to continue the talks within a week or two.

There’s growing pressure on Kerry, who said that he knows he faces skepticism given the record of failures by his predecessors and the gulf of hostility and distrust between Israelis and Palestinians. In announcing July 30 that they would resume direct negotiations, Kerry declared that his goal would be to help them reach within nine months a “final status agreement,” a diplomatic phrase that implies ending the conflict and all claims for both sides.

Much Skepticism

“After so many decades of disappointments,” there are “many who are skeptical of whether American diplomacy can achieve this breakthrough to peace,” he said on the Dec. 7 at the forum that drew an audience of U.S. and Israeli officials and policy analysts.

“It’s no surprise that skepticism, even cynicism, is widespread,” Kerry said at the conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Privately, some of Kerry’s aides say he, too, has his doubts that a final status agreement is possible by next summer. He thinks that it’s essential for him to try because, more than 35 years after President Jimmy Carter brokered the initial Camp David peace agreement, the time to negotiate a final agreement is rapidly evaporating, three of them said.

All three, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Kerry’s thinking, said the secretary believes the task falls to him because U.S. President Barack Obama is preoccupied with domestic issues such as health care and the budget and lacks political capital to invest in long-shot Mideast peacemaking.

Essential Agreement

Kerry, who turns 70 on Dec. 11, figures he’s probably at the end of a long career in public service, has the necessary personal relationships from his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying for an agreement that’s essential to eliminating a major source of instability in the Mideast, the officials said

Addressing the Saban forum on Dec. 7, Obama said he thinks it’s possible to reach a “framework that would not address every single detail.”

Kerry, who followed the president at the conference, struck a more ambitious note. He said he hopes to have the two side agree on a “basic framework” covering “all the core issues” -- such as borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, and mutual recognition -- and establish guidelines for subsequent negotiations for a “full-on peace treaty.”

‘Wiggle Room’

The president and Kerry are giving themselves “a little bit of wiggle room,” Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and former U.S. official on the Mideast, said in an e-mail.

A comprehensive framework agreement “that is conflict-ending and which addresses all the core issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians would be historic,” he said. “It also remains extremely difficult to achieve.”

In the past, partial solutions and “road maps” delineating a peace process have failed to resolve the conflict, and those failures have hardened positions on both sides.

A breakthrough framework accord would have to lay out principles on issues such as borders and control of Jerusalem to which Israel and the Palestinians have never before committed themselves, Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast negotiator who is vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said in a phone interview yesterday.

Border Issues

Aside from reasserting the longstanding U.S. commitment to Israel’s security, Obama and Kerry didn’t comment in detail on U.S. positions involving issues such as the borders of a Palestinian state and Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to establish their capital in the eastern part of the city.

Obama said there would have to be a “transition process” and that the Palestinians wouldn’t get “everything they want on day one” under an accord, which initially may exclude Gaza, which is under the control of the militant Islamist movement Hamas.

That “creates some political problems” for Abbas, said Obama. The Palestinians envision their future state comprised of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem along the dividing lines that existed before the six-day Arab-Israeli war in 1967, with some adjustments through land swaps.

Finance Minister Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party is the second-biggest faction in Netanyahu’s Likud-led ruling coalition, said yesterday he has supported keeping the details of negotiations confidential “to give the peace process a fair chance to unfold.”

‘Shift Gears’

At this point, he said at a conference in Tel Aviv, “the time has come to shift gears” to encourage an open debate in Israel about the concessions necessary for an agreement.

While the Palestinians have resorted to “delay tactics and constant stalling,” Israel has “reached the juncture at which our government must ask itself if it is handling the negotiations earnestly so as to genuinely achieve a peace agreement,” he said according to a text of his remarks.

Netanyahu, in video remarks to the Saban forum in Washington yesterday, repeated that he is “ready for a historic compromise” with the Palestinians, who he said must accept Israel as a Jewish state.

Kerry’s visit to Israel and the West Bank last week moved the talks into what may be a new phase when he put forward a package of measures developed by U.S. officials to address Israel’s security concerns about a neighboring independent Palestinian state

‘Very Difficult’

Much of the conversation focused on Israel’s concerns about the risks if it gives up its military presence along the border with Jordan along the eastern edge of the West Bank, according to Kerry.

It will be “very difficult” to reach an agreement if Israel can’t be persuaded that its security will increase, Kerry said.

The proposals were developed and presented in the talks with Netanyahu last week by retired Marine Corps General John Allen, who served as the top American commander in Afghanistan and is now an adviser to Kerry. It was the result of several months of consultations between U.S.and Israeli security experts and included discussion of new U.S. technology that could be used to ensure border security along the Jordan River, according to Kerry.

‘All Hell’

Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said last week that negotiations need first to address the border issues, and that security arrangements will be based on those lines. If the U.S. accepts that final borders are set according to what Israel determines are its security needs, “all hell with break loose,” he said in Ramallah.

U.S. Mideast envoy Martin Indyk, a veteran Mideast negotiator who formerly headed the Saban Center, recently added to his team David Makovsky, a Washington policy analyst who has focused on territorial options under a peace agreement.

Kerry has deflected questions about whether the U.S. may draft and present a full accord if the two sides are unable to do it themselves.

“The United States, obviously, cannot nor should we make all the hard decisions –- only the leaders themselves, the governments themselves, can do that –- but we can serve as the facilitator, the honest broker, and the full partner in an effort to reach agreement,” he said at the forum. “And for all the talk about our disengagement or declining influence in the Middle East –- just ask yourself about my eight trips. In the Middle East, the fact is that both parties still look to us to play this role.”

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