Middle East peace talks: what will figure into Kerry's 'reality check'

After tit-for-tat actions by Israel and the Palestinians threw Middle East talks into disarray, Secretary of State John Kerry said he would review the bleak picture with President Obama and consider future steps.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at a news conference with Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar after a US-Morocco Strategic Dialogue at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rabat, Morocco, Friday April 4, 2014. 'Both sides have taken steps that are not helpful…it is reality check time,' said Kerry in response to a question about the Middle East peace talks process, 'none of this time has been wasted.'

Secretary of State John Kerry has always said he was cleareyed about the high hurdles standing in the path of successful Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But the politician-turned-top diplomat sounded uncharacteristically pessimistic Friday as he acknowledged that the talks –the signature initiative of his 14-month tenure – teeter on the verge of collapse.

It is time, he said, for a “reality check” of the eight-month-old negotiations. And after stiff setbacks dealt to the talks by both sides this week, Secretary Kerry seemed to suggest that a stocktaking was in order on two levels.

First, by the Israelis and Palestinians, who must decide if they are ready for the “tough decisions” necessary to enable negotiations to continue. “The leaders have to make these decisions,” Kerry said.

And then by the Obama administration, which will have to reconsider whether it should invest more time and energy in talks that have made little visible progress since commencing in July.

For many Middle East analysts who have questioned Kerry’s insistence on a peace initiative at a time when neither side seemed terribly interested, that “reality check” is in order for the secretary of State as well. A potential “reality” Kerry must consider, they say, is that while neither side was prepared to make the big decisions, both parties remained in the talks so as not to alienate the US. 

Speaking in Rabat, Morocco, on Friday, Kerry said a reevaluation of US efforts was called for especially when so many other foreign policy issues are demanding US attention.

“Clearly we have an enormous amount on the plate,” Kerry said, on the last stop of a grueling two-week trip that took him to Europe, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and North Africa. During the trip, he took up everything from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war to Iran’s nuclear program and Islamist extremists in North Africa – all on top of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

During this trip Kerry made two stops, in Israel and Jordan, focused on reaching an accord to extend Israeli-Palestinian negotiations past their end-of-April deadline. He was planning to return for a third time Wednesday – until a set of tit-for-tat actions by Israel and the Palestinians threw talks into disarray.    

“There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend [on the Middle East peace process] if the parties themselves are unable to take constructive steps,” Kerry said. “We are going to evaluate very carefully exactly where this is and where it might possibly be able to go.”

Kerry said that on his return to Washington, he would review the bleak picture with President Obama and consider future steps.

White House officials said Friday afternoon that Kerry and the president would discuss the impasse, but suggested that the more crucial reflection on the negotiations’ future must take place among Israelis and Palestinians. “There’s no doubt that we have reached a point where the Palestinian leaders and the Israeli leaders need to spend some time thinking about making some very difficult decisions,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

A decision to end the talks would be a disheartening setback for Kerry, who took up his position pressing Obama to allow him a go at a conflict that has stymied American diplomacy for decades – one that Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, studiously avoided.

Kerry said Friday that both parties had in the previous hours assured him that they wanted the talks to continue. But earlier in the week, both sides took steps that – although popular with domestic publics – brought Kerry’s initiative to the brink.

First, Israel failed to make good on a commitment to release on March 29 a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners – the final piece of a staggered prisoner release that was part of the deal that got talks going in July. In response, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced Wednesday that the Palestinians would join 15 international agencies and conventions as “Palestine” – despite a commitment not to seek to enhance international legitimacy outside peace negotiations during the nine months of talks.

Mr. Abbas said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to live up to his commitment had released him from his. Not to be outdone, the Israeli government in turn announced Thursday that the prisoner release had been “canceled.”

Despite the fierce crosswinds set off by the retaliatory actions, Kerry and his team had continued working this week on a complex plan to extend talks through 2015, according to State Department officials.

The tentative plan called for an Israeli prisoner release and some Israeli commitment to a go-slow on West Bank settlement construction. In return, the Palestinians would refrain from any steps to enhance the international status they gained in 2012 when the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine to the status of “non-member” observer state.

The novelty of the three-way accord was that it was to include a controversial step by the US – release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who has been serving a life sentence since 1987 for selling US secrets to Israel.

Whether that deal remains on the table was unclear Friday. The US envoy to the talks, Martin Indyk, was set to meet with Palestinians Friday evening, and some Israeli officials said there was still some hope that negotiations could be salvaged. But Kerry hinted strongly that for the US, it’s now or never.

“Both sides say they want to continue. Neither party has said they have called it off,” he said. “But we are not going to sit there indefinitely. It is not an open-ended effort.”

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