U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that the “festering absence of peace” between Israelis and Palestinians only fuels extremism and that the time is right for renewed efforts toward resolving the decades-old conflict.
Kerry, speaking to a small group of reporters during his third trip to the region in a month, said he was embarking on a “quiet strategy” to wade through the deep reservoirs of mistrust on both sides in hopes of restarting serious negotiations. However, he emphasized that he’s fully aware of the difficulties of reaching an enduring Israeli-Palestinian resolution and said he refused to be pinned down by guidelines or timetables.
“I understand it is a complicated, well-trod path of disappointments and/or moments of hope followed by breach of agreement or process,” Kerry said. “And that mistrust is very high, and that one of the reasons for these early interventions is to get right at the issue of mistrust.”
While the State Department plays down talk of a new shuttle diplomacy, it’s clear that a Middle East peace deal is inching its way up the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda. The Obama administration was thrilled with its tentative success in thawing the icy relations between ironclad ally Israel and Turkey, a rising regional player that aspires to a leading role in the peace process.
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And the fact that Kerry already is back for a third time, not quite a month after accompanying President Barack Obama to the region, signals that the administration is willing to devote real effort toward getting the parties back to the negotiating table. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials told McClatchy last week that Kerry was interested in dusting off a long-ignored Arab initiative – called the Arab Peace Initiative – that would grant Israel full normalization with Arab states across the region in exchange for a final status solution and an independent Palestinian state.
Kerry landed in Jerusalem on Sunday evening and went straight to the Ramallah compound of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas; he saw Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Fayyad. On the Israeli side, Kerry met with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
“My dear friend, there is a new wind of peace blowing through the Middle East,” Peres told Kerry as he greeted him just before their private talk.
“A belief in peace is possible, is needed, is real. And peace is possible,” Peres continued. “I believe that the gaps between us and our Palestinian neighbors can be bridged and I speak out of experience."
Palestinian officials told Kerry on Monday that they would take part in the new U.S.-led peace initiative if Israel agreed to a series of goodwill gestures to help empower the Palestinian Authority government in Ramallah. A release of Palestinian prisoners and bolstering Palestinian security forces in the West Bank were mentioned as two possible gestures that Kerry would discuss with Netanyahu.
Still, officials from both sides remained skeptical about these nascent U.S. efforts.
“With the track record being what it is, the Palestinians feel that a goodwill gesture, a serious one, is needed. We are not just a plaything that the Americans can pick up and play with and then drop when they are bored,” said one senior Palestinian official who took part in a meeting with Kerry in Ramallah who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the talks. “We need a serious process with serious and significant gestures.”
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has confirmed that Kerry has been floating the Arab Peace Initiative as a way out of the current deadlock. Kerry had proposed key changes in the plan to lighten the language on borders, among other issues, to make the deal more attractive to the Israelis.
“Kerry asked us to change a few words in the Arab Peace Initiative but we refused,” Erekat told the Voice of Palestine radio station on Sunday.
Palestinian officials said, however, that if Kerry were able to secure goodwill gestures from the Israelis, they would agree to discussions over the language of the initiative.
Palestinian officials have long maintained that Israel must agree to a full freeze in settlement building before sitting down at the negotiation table. Current talks ground to a halt almost four years ago, and previous mediation efforts have failed to move the parties forward.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t confirm a McClatchy report that quoted officials as saying Obama had won a two-month cooling-off period during which Israel would stop announcing settlement activities and Palestinians wouldn’t press their case before the United Nations or the International Criminal Court, allowing Kerry to work his diplomacy without absolute deal breakers. But Carney said those are actions the U.S. government has long championed as helpful to reviving talks.
“I can simply confirm that it is our position and it is a position the president reflected in his conversation that it is counterproductive for either side, whether it’s the Palestinians through the U.N. or the Israelis through settlement construction, to take unilateral action that makes it more difficult to engage in constructive negotiations towards peace,” Carney told reporters.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed from Washington.