Kerry Has Quiet Strategy to Ease Middle East Mistrust

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, saying differences between Palestinians and Israelis can be overcome, declined to set deadlines or offer details on what he called a “quiet strategy” for resuscitating peace talks.

“This process should not be rushed,” he told reporters yesterday in Jerusalem. “It would be irresponsible not to explore thoroughly the possibilities for moving forward.”

Kerry has shown interest in revisiting a dormant proposal, endorsed by the Arab League a decade ago, in which Arab states would normalize relations with Israel if it withdraws from lands occupied during the 1967 Mideast war, according to two U.S. officials and a Turkish diplomat who asked not to be named because talks are intended to remain private.

“I am having discussions about those steps that would get at this issue of mistrust, those steps that would allow us to get a process,” Kerry said, declining to elaborate on specific areas of discussion. “There is a quiet strategy that I intend to keep quiet.”

The top U.S. diplomat is on his third trip to the region in a month. During a three-day period, Kerry crammed meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, as well as top officials from both sides.

Homework Needed

With Netanyahu today, Kerry said both agreed “to do our homework over the course of the next weeks.” For his part, the Israeli leader said he was determined “to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all.”

While mistrust between the parties is high, Kerry said he is “convinced that we can break that down, but I am not going to do it under guidelines and under time limits.”

Kerry also announced new economic development in the West Bank. Without giving specifics, he said there was agreement with both parties to remove some bottlenecks to commerce in the West Bank, boost business development and cut back on red tape. He said an announcement of which companies would be involved would come in “the very near future.”

President Barack Obama, who visited Israel last month, has charged Kerry with reviving talks between the Palestinians and Israel. The last round of negotiations fell apart in September 2010 after Netanyahu didn’t extend a 10-month freeze on settlement building in areas of the West Bank claimed by Palestinians.

Settlement Construction

Last week, Abbas said he wouldn’t pursue action against Israel in international bodies, including United Nations agencies, if Kerry got Israel to agree to a two-month moratorium on settlement construction.

Kerry, who has been to the region on all three of his trips overseas since becoming secretary in late January, is seeking to create a positive climate for resumption of negotiations with Israel while keeping details of any possible initiative a secret, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be named discussing diplomatic matters.

“It’s a bit premature to get excited,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Clearly, there is a signal of intent to move forward. Kerry is not just freelancing, and the administration is pursuing a more judicious approach.”

The arrival of leaders from Jordan, Turkey and Qatar in Washington in coming weeks, along with Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, have raised expectations a new peace plan is in the works.

One obstacle is the growing political clout of Hamas, the rival Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

“The balance of power in Palestinian politics has shifted,” Danin said in a telephone interview. “Hamas has been emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region and the 2011 cease-fire with Israel. There is a sense that Hamas is on the ascendancy.”

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