Israel greets Kerry with settlement declaration. Could that signal progress?

Israel's settlement announcement would seem to be a slap at Kerry's efforts to reopen peace talks. But as one Mideast veteran puts it, Netanyahu 'takes a step backward before he takes a step forward.'

By , Staff writer

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    US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r.) in Jerusalem June 27. Kerry arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday in an effort to restart Middle East peace talks.
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Instead of a red carpet, Secretary of State John Kerry got what might have looked like a knee-capping – in the form of an announcement of new settlement construction – for his arrival in Jerusalem Thursday.

But what under other conditions might have looked like a deliberate sabotaging of Secretary Kerry’s laser-like – and some say, quixotic – efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is being viewed by some regional experts as a sure sign that Kerry may be on the verge of succeeding.

“Kerry has a good chance of announcing the resumption of talks, if not on this trip then on the next, and the tell-tale sign for me is this announcement” of a new 69-unit settlement in a sensitive neighborhood of East Jerusalem, says Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat for both Republican and Democratic administrations who is now vice president for new initiatives at the Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington.

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“Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] always takes a step backward before he takes a step forward,” says Dr. Miller, who, with his long experience in peace-process diplomacy, is not given to overly optimistic assessments. “So an announcement of a project like this practically on the day the secretary of state is arriving, that tells me something is coming.”

Secretary Kerry was scheduled to have a private dinner Thursday evening with Mr. Netanyahu, the opening of two days of discussions with Israeli and Palestinian officials. It is Kerry’s fifth trip in as many months to try to jump start the moribund peace talks – a quest Kerry has counted as one of his top priorities since he left the Senate to lead the State Department in early February.

If Kerry succeeds in getting the two sides back to the table it would be a feat in itself, regional analysts say, although it would only be the first and perhaps easiest step on a path toward reaching what many consider to be the fleeting goal, a two-state solution to the conflict.

But a resumption of talks would be a victory for Kerry’s approach to the peace-process conundrum, which Miller says has been to focus on building trust with Netanyahu.

“Kerry has invested a lot in this relationship, he’s acutely aware that without this relationship he has nothing – full stop,” he says.

The secretary of state also has to “invest” in his relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, Miller says. But he adds that the “asymmetry” of Kerry’s attention to developing a relationship with each leader suggests he understands what it will take to break through with talks.

“Kerry gets it,” Miller says, “and in a way that Obama doesn’t get it.”

With his preferential treatment of the Israeli leader, Kerry has “stacked the deck, in a way,” to clear the way to a resumption of talks, Miller says.

The strongest evidence of this is how the issue of settlement construction has virtually disappeared from the US agenda for getting the peace process back on track. A settlement freeze was a cornerstone of Obama’s initial first-term Mideast peace initiative, but for many analysts the demand poisoned Obama-Netanyahu relations and made any meaningful peace process impossible.

But under Kerry the words “settlement freeze” aren’t spoken – even though the Palestinians hold to that condition for resuming talks – and State Department officials avoid detailed condemnations of any settlement announcements, as happened this week with the East Jerusalem case.

At the State Department Wednesday, acting deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell sidestepped a journalist’s question about the new construction, saying only that "the secretary is very focused on getting both sides back to the table.”

“You don’t even hear about settlements anymore,” says Miller. “The president has essentially taken this off the table to allow Kerry to move this forward.”                  

This new approach also explains the very different US response to this week’s settlement construction announcement compared with how the administration responded to a similar plan – with eerily similar timing -- in 2010.

Vice President Joe Biden was in Jerusalem as the Israelis announced approval of a settlement project, also in East Jerusalem – the part of the city the Palestinians claim as their capital. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the announcement and its timing “insulting,” and an infuriated Obama turned a cold shoulder to Netanyahu. The president’s first-term initiative to deliver an accord on a two-state solution never recovered.

To be sure, this week’s announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem was criticized by Palestinian officials and even some Israelis as a “message” to Kerry that Israel has no interest in returning to negotiations.

One Jerusalem City Council member, Meir Margalit of the left-leaning Meretz party, described the announcement as the very kind of “provocation” the US has asked both sides to avoid, and said it was proof that the Netanyahu government “has no serious intentions to restart the peace process.”  

Kerry sidestepped the latest controversy, focusing instead on the “urgency” of restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks soon.

Speaking at a press conference in Kuwait Wednesday, Kerry said he was not seeking to impose any “deadlines” for starting talks on the two sides. But at the same time he described it as “urgent” to get something going over the next couple of months – before the next United Nations General Assembly in September, he said – because “time is the enemy of the peace process.

“The passage of time,” he added, “allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don’t want things to happen.”

Kerry will be able to gauge at his dinner with Netanyahu whether the time and effort he has invested in the relationship has paid off – and just how much Netanyahu wants “things to happen.”

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