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.'
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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