Last updated: July 30, 2013 8:13 am

Kerry faces scepticism over Israeli-Palestinian talks

When John Kerry boarded his aeroplane in Jordan 10 days ago after announcing the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the secretary of state’s staff greeted him with a round of applause.

Even getting the two sides back to the table for the first time in nearly four years is an achievement for Mr Kerry, who has travelled to the region six times since he took office earlier this year and has held countless hours of meetings.

Yet as Mr Kerry prepares to host the two sides in Washington for two days of meetings that started off with a dinner on Monday, he is facing deep scepticism about the prospects for the negotiations.

In the 20 years since the Oslo peace process began, predictions about the new round of talks have probably never been more pessimistic. “This is a difficult process,” Mr Kerry admitted on Monday. “If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago.”

The political reality facing the leaders of both sides is one reason for the scepticism. As the vote over the weekend to release Palestinian prisoners demonstrated, Israel’s cabinet is sharply divided over the talks and the pro-settler political parties have threatened to leave the government if Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, makes what they see as significant concessions over territory.

On the Palestinian side, the gap between Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, the radical Islamist group which controls Gaza, has only become more entrenched since the last round of talks.

Palestinians have little faith in Mr Netanyahu, who many believe will use new talks to provide political cover for continued expansion of settlements, while Mr Abbas is viewed in Israel as being too weak to make important concessions.

On top of that, the new talks are taking place amid regional turmoil, including Syria’s civil war, Egypt’s political crisis and huge refugee problems in Jordan and Lebanon. Many of the regional actors who might otherwise be applying pressure on both sides to make compromises are preoccupied elsewhere.

The meetings this week in Washington between Tzipi Livni, Israeli justice minister, and the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat are not even strictly a resumption of negotiations, but rather talks about talks. The state department said that two sides would “develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months”.

“The expectations are modest,” says David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Given the huge obstacles to reaching a final status agreement that would cover borders, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, some observers believe the US should push for more modest initial steps that would provide some sort of backstop if the talks were to fail.

“There are many things that can be done before a final status agreement is reached,” says Natan Sachs at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Such piecemeal steps could include partial Israeli withdrawal from sections of the West Bank, he says. “Given the risks of what might happen if the talks fail, it is important to have a safety net.”

US officials point out that any talks – even ones about procedure – can create their own momentum, which puts unexpected pressure on the leaders. Some Israeli analysts also believe that Mr Netanyahu has more room to make concessions than the headlines about his coalition government would suggest. The prime minister has other potential coalition partners if his government collapses.

Menachem Hofnung, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said the growing public support for Mr Netanyahu and his moves regarding the peace process is bolstering the prime minister’s political standing in the face of pro-settler parties opposed to the peace process.

“He’s having tremendous public support at the moment and all his coalition partners know that if they leave the government and Netanyahu will go for new elections, they will lose public backing,” Mr Hofnung added.

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