Kerry’s Optimism Challenged by Questions on Mideast Peace

While John Kerry’s frequent trips to the Middle East have generated headlines and created a sense of momentum, there’s little evidence so far that the U.S. secretary of state is close to his goal of producing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Kerry stoked public expectations when he said this month, during his ninth visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, that “we are closer than we have been in years” to a two-state accord. He didn’t offer details, and that Dec. 6 statement may set a low bar because the peace process broke down more than three years ago in a dispute over Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that the burden is on the Palestinians to show they’re willing to satisfy Israel’s core needs for security and recognition as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” A poll released this week by the West Bank-based Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip expect the Kerry-led talks to fail.

“We should take all the statements of progress with a grain of salt,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group. “The mood among Israelis and Palestinians is overwhelming sober. More than sober, it’s pessimistic.”

Beneath Kerry’s public optimism, he too is uncertain that his efforts will succeed, according to officials who asked not to be named in discussing the private negotiations. Kerry’s public demeanor may be part of negotiating tactics “meant to push the Israelis and Palestinians” closer to a deal, said Sachs.

‘Detached From Reality’

“There is this kind of inexplicable sense that something’s inevitable, that something good is going to happen, and it’s very detached from the reality on the ground,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former Palestinian negotiator now at the Brookings Institution. “At least, the political reality on the Palestinian side, and the Israeli side,” he said.

During his visits to the region, Kerry has shuttled between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who haven’t spoken face-to-face since Sept 2010. Between trips, members of his peace team led by veteran negotiator Martin Indyk have been involved with direct talks between Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Prior U.S. efforts failed to resolve the same core Israeli-Palestinian disputes -- over borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and an end of claims -- that Kerry is trying to bridge during his nine-month timetable, which has already reached its halfway point.

‘Political Risks’

“We know what the outlines of a potential agreement might look like,” President Barack Obama said at the Saban Forum conference in Washington this month. “And the question then becomes are both sides willing to take the very tough political risks involved if their bottom lines are met.”

A legacy of U.S. diplomatic failures since President Bill Clinton’s December 2000 peace “parameters” -- the first time a U.S. president publicly presented a detailed final-status framework -- contributes to skepticism about the outcome of Kerry’s efforts, according to analysts such as Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

The Palestinian leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, rejected the Clinton plan after Israel conditionally accepted it. Since then, developments have made political compromise more difficult.

Losing Ground

Since Abbas succeeded Arafat, he’s lost ground to the radical Islamist group Hamas, which gained control of the Gaza Strip and aimed rocket attacks at Israeli civilians. The Jewish settler population -- a key political constituency for Netanyahu’s ruling coalition -- has increased to 341,000 from 198,000 in the West Bank and to 200,000 from 172,000 in east Jerusalem, according to Israel’s Peace Now group.

Abbas faces terms that are apt to be less favorable than those Clinton proposed on issues such as Jerusalem, borders and other the other issues, said Sandler.

“I can’t imagine how the most pro-settlement government in Israel’s history is going to abandon settlements and divide Jerusalem,” Elgindy said.

Any peace deal would need to include territorial compromise and land swaps to allow Israel to retain most of the authorized settlements. Even that prospect probably would force Netanyahu to reshape his coalition, said Sachs.

‘Dramatic Moves’

One sign of real progress would be if Netanyahu makes “dramatic political moves” to assemble a coalition more supportive of an agreement with Palestinians, he said.

“It would take a bold move on Netanyahu’s part, something that isn’t like him,” Sachs said.

While Kerry won a pledge from Netanyahu and Abbas not to talk about the substance of their talks, leaks and general comments point to the immediate obstacles.

A Palestinian newspaper said Kerry presented a proposal to Abbas this month that would let Israel maintain a military presence on the border between the West Bank and Jordan for 10 years, an idea the Palestinians have rejected in the past as a violation of their sovereignty.

Allies of Abbas criticized the security plan as favoring Israel. The U.S. “should reconsider its proposals and not be biased,” Abdallah Abdallah, head of the Palestinian legislature’s political affairs committee, said in a phone interview.

Jewish State

Netanyahu this week emphasized his insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinian negotiators in the past have been unwilling to recognize Israel’s Jewish character on the grounds that doing so would undermine the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and negate a claimed right of Palestinian refugees to return to their families’ former homes in Israel.

The Israeli leader has made such recognition a public litmus test of whether the Palestinians want peace.

“It’s only when they recognize the Jewish state and accept it in this or that boundary, then we’ll have peace,” Netanyahu said in video remarks Dec. 15 to a San Diego conference of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan, said it’s “premature to jump to any conclusions about progress” by Kerry. “Until we see parameters or a package on the table, it would be premature to say there has been progress.”

It’s also unclear whether Kerry’s mission is a priority for Obama, said Muasher, who directs the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment, a Washington policy group.

‘Not Enough’

“So far, it seems to be support like, ‘If you succeed, we’re behind you,’ ” he said, “That is not going to be enough.”

Declining U.S. clout in the Middle East also may hamper Kerry’s efforts.

“If you look around the region, the last couple of years since the Arab Spring, you can see the U.S. influence is not what it was before,” said Robert Blecher, deputy director of the Middle East, North Africa program at the International Crisis Group, a policy group based in New York.

“If this is going to go anywhere, it’s going to require somebody with a lot of energy and somebody with a big stick,” Blecher said. “It’s clear Kerry has a lot of energy. It’s not clear the U.S. can bring off an agreement, and I think that’s in part because of the changed position of the U.S. in the region.”

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