Secretary Kerry returning to Mideast: How much nudging will he do?

Seeking to build on Obama's recent visit, John Kerry will be in Turkey and Israel – already his third trip there as secretary – to signal the Mideast parties 'he's serious' about making peace.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the State Department in Washington. Kerry is traveling to Turkey and Israel this weekend to build on the two nations' efforts to repair ties.

Secretary of State John Kerry will sit down with leaders in Turkey and Israel this weekend, anxious to test out what progress he might be able to make in long-stalled Middle East peace talks after both President Obama’s recent visit as well as his own attention to the region.

Secretary Kerry made it clear from the moment he assumed his post as chief US diplomat this year that he intended to give long-elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians a serious shot – despite the long odds against success. By adding stops in Istanbul Saturday and then in Israel Sunday to a previously planned overseas trip, Kerry is out to hammer home to leaders in the region in particular that he intends to stay on the issue.

“He’s all in, he’s serious about this,” says one State Department official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on Kerry’s trip. It will be Kerry’s third trip to Israel since taking office.

In Istanbul, Kerry will try to build on the diplomatic coup President Obama was able to pull off during his trip to Israel last month that pulled Israeli-Turkish relations out of a long deep freeze. Obama persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend a formal apology to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the deaths of nine activists in an Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid-to-Gaza flotilla in 2010.

But all eyes will focus on Kerry’s subsequent meetings with Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. State Department officials emphasize that Kerry is not going to Israel with any “plan” for restarting talks in his pocket – but they also say that this trip aims to go beyond the “listening tour” that Kerry and Obama made to the region last month.

US officials and regional analysts with knowledge of the administration’s thinking say Kerry is likely to try to nudge Israelis and Palestinians toward some initial concrete steps to demonstrate to the other side that they are serious about setting the stage for negotiations.

The Palestinians will be encouraged to consider specific security measures to entice the Israelis, while Israel will be encouraged to reciprocate with some gesture on settlement construction, officials say.

But even that won’t be easy, experts agree. Netanyahu likes to repeat that he is ready to return to negotiations “without preconditions” – which means he rejects the need to make any concessions first to the Palestinians. President Abbas, on the other hand, says he is ready to return to the table once Israel puts a freeze on settlement construction – a condition many analysts view as the equivalent of a no-talks stance.

Kerry’s task strikes many as near impossible, since both leaders he’ll meet with are under intense pressure from domestic corners not to give an inch.

But the opposite is true as well, some analysts note, with both Netanyahu and Abbas facing reminders that the status quo is dangerous for both sides.

This week anti-Israel protests bloomed in the West Bank, in this case after a 64-year-old Palestinian died of an illness in Israeli prison.

In Israel, prominent Israelis including former military and intelligence officials continue to remind Netanyahu of their view that a two-state solution – one that results in the Palestinians having their own country and ends Israel’s status as an occupying power – is the only guarantee in the long term of preserving Israel as both a democratic and Jewish state.

Netanyahu, who in the past has demonstrated that he is attuned to the thinking of the Jewish-American community, is also under renewed pressure from across the Atlantic to take advantage of Kerry’s interest in addressing the conflict by making his own – perhaps even dramatic – gesture for peace.

This week a group of more than 100 prominent Jewish Americans, including well-known Israel backers from both conservative and liberal camps, sent Netanyahu a letter in which they called on him to take “concrete confidence building steps” to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution.

“In particular,” they said, “we urge you … to work closely with Secretary of State John Kerry to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.”

Initiated by the Israel Policy Forum, a US-based group that seeks “to promote Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state,” the letter tells Netanyahu, “Your leadership would challenge Palestinian leaders to take similarly constructive steps, including, most importantly, a prompt return to the negotiating table.”

Kerry will be gauging how much either side is ready to “take constructive steps” to make the relaunch of peace talks possible.

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