Why Kerry could succeed at securing Israeli-Palestinian peace

Despite deep-seated cynicism about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Secretary of State John Kerry has kicked off his term with the biggest American push for an agreement since 2000.

Paul J. Richards/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, (l.), and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reach out to shake hands at the start of their meeting at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, Tuesday. Kerry wrapped up three days of high-level Mideast diplomacy on a positive note Tuesday, saying he held "very constructive talks" with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s focus on restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, underscored by his third visit to Jerusalem in two weeks, marks what some see as perhaps the most promising American diplomatic efforts here since 2000.

To be sure, there is widespread cynicism on both sides about whether Mr. Kerry can actually bring about concrete results. But Kerry appears poised to get negotiations under way even before the two sides agree to meet by serving as a mediator and providing bridging proposals – something that the US hasn’t done since President Bill Clinton, says Gershon Baskin of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) think tank in Jerusalem.

“Kerry is extremely serious about making this happen, extremely realistic on what the difficulties are, very knowledgeable about why and how the process failed in the past and is trying not to make the same mistakes,” says Dr. Baskin, who helped arrange the backchannel negotiations between Israel and Hamas that freed captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. “I found it very encouraging and refreshing to hear statements like, ‘This conflict is resolvable.’ ”

Kerry accompanied President Obama to Jerusalem and Ramallah two weeks ago, returned almost immediately for a follow-up visit, and arrived on Sunday for another three-day tour.

Since then, the secretary has met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, and other senior officials on both sides.

"Each of them made very serious and well-considered, constructive suggestions with respect to what the road forward might look like,” said Kerry, according to the Associated Press. “And they all embraced the goal that we all share here. So this effort is not just about getting the parties into direct negotiations. It's about getting everybody in the best position to succeed."

Two months of calm

Part of the American approach is to establish a period of calm in which Kerry can build some momentum. During Obama’s recent visit, he reportedly came to an understanding with Israel that it will not announce any new settlement projects for eight weeks. Palestinians will not pursue new initiatives at the United Nations, such as seeking to open war-crimes cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

“I think that this is the essence of the new American initiative. By encouraging two sides to avoid unilateral activities, in the American definition of it, the American initiative assumes this will create the possibility of bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table,” says Ghassan Khatib, former PA spokesman and vice president of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. “The only weakness in this plan is it doesn’t say anything about the period after eight weeks. What if nothing happens?”

Kerry is working hard on a number of fronts, including moves to strengthen the Palestinian economy; obtaining concrete written proposals from both sides on their positions on key issues like borders and security; working with regional Arab leaders to revive the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative; and potentially engaging Turkey’s influential leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to help mediate between Israel and Hamas.

Basis for negotiations

The Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by the Saudis and backed by the 22-member Arab League, offers Israel full normalization of ties with the Arab world in exchange for establishing a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem and Israeli withdrawal from the land it has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including the Golan Heights.

It also calls for resolving the Palestinian refugee issue on the basis of UN Resolution 194, which calls for allowing all refugees wishing to return to their homes to do so and that “compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.”

Granting Palestinian refugees the right of return is a red line for Israel, says Baskin, and withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines is possible only if Palestinians agree to land swaps that would enable Israel to keep some settlements in the West Bank without reducing the total size of the Palestinian state.

A state along 1967 lines would represent 22 percent of historic Palestine, and “they’re not willing to give up another inch,” says Baskin. “That is a red line for the Palestinians.”

Kerry has reportedly been exploring the possibility of modifying the Arab Peace Initiative in a bid to secure Israel’s approval, but the Arab League has so far refused to change the wording. The league has decided, however, to send a delegation to visit Washington on April 29, and Mr. Abbas was in Qatar today to discuss resuming negotiations with Israel, as well as reconciliation between the dominant Palestinian political factions, Fatah and Hamas.

Wrong move to seek Turkey’s mediation?

The six-year split between the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza has been a key obstacle to securing a viable peace agreement. Israel has designated Hamas a terrorist organization and refuses to negotiate with it. But as long as Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, it could potentially derail any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by refusing to back Abbas or encouraging militants to engage in violence against Israel.

Kerry, who stopped in Turkey this weekend en route to Israel, reportedly sought out Prime Minister Erdogan for help bringing Hamas to the peace table. But Kerry’s move may backfire, since a tentative US-brokered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey just two weeks earlier has yet to gel. With Obama’s prodding, Israel apologized for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli naval commandos killed nine Turkish activists aboard a Gaza-bound flotilla. Erdogan welcome the apology but at the time of Kerry’s visit, he had yet to respond with a similar gesture.

“There was a rush to have another achievement on top of the one that wasn’t an achievement yet. You do not just say we apologize, and it heals,” says veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Liel, whose career included a stint in Turkey. “It is unrealistic to go to Turkey and announce that Turkey will be involved and expect that Israel will applaud.”

But despite concerns that US efforts may fail to produce concrete progress in the short term, Prof. Khatib welcomes the American engagement as a way to temper both parties – both in terms of rhetoric and moves such as Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian initiatives at the UN.

“This can serve the important purpose,” he says, of “keeping the two-state solution possible.”

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