March 2, 2014 5:05 pm

John Kerry to set out ‘framework’ for future Middle East talks

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah

After spending the past six months shuttling around the Middle East in an effort to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, John Kerry is fast approaching his moment of truth.

The US secretary of state has been preparing what is being described as a “framework” for future talks, which he is expected to unveil shortly. At the same time, a round of crucial meetings during March will provide a window to the political prospects for the talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, travelling with one of the largest entourages seen on any Israeli state visit, goes to the White House on Monday, the same day that Mr Kerry addresses the annual conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will then visit the White House on March 17, with President Barack Obama also travelling to Saudi Arabia in late March when the peace process will be one of the main topics.

Taken together, the series of events will go a long way to defining whether there really is political space for one last heave at the peace process, taking place in the shadow of the crisis in Ukraine, or whether the two-state solution is finally doomed.

After 10 trips to the region for peace process talks, Mr Kerry let slip last week some of his frustration about the avalanche of scepticism that he faces. “I laugh at people who say it is not going anywhere,” he said. “They have no clue where our negotiations are, whether they can go anywhere.”

Even before he has outlined his “framework” ideas, Mr Kerry has generated a storm of criticism from the Israeli right. Last month, defence minister Moshe Yaalon labelled Mr Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic” for the way he was pursuing a peace negotiation that few Israelis or Palestinians expect to succeed. Economics minister Naftali Bennett accused him of being an “amplifier” of anti-Semitic attacks on Israel after Mr Kerry warned that Israel would suffer more boycotts if it did not reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

Rightwing members of the Knesset gave a hostile and sceptical reception last week to Dan Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel – a recording of which was leaked to the Israeli press.

“Why should we believe you?” David Rotem of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was quoted demanding of Mr Shapiro at the meeting. “When have you ever seen the US support Israel when there have been differences of opinion?”

Israel’s 500,000-strong settler movement, who have many supporters inside Mr Netanyahu’s rightwing coalition, have been openly lobbying the prime minister not to make concessions in the talks, and recently staged a rally in the Jordan Valley, where they want Israel to retain sovereignty after any peace agreement.

Mr Kerry’s hostile reception from the Israeli right could be a sign that he has managed to move the talks on to the areas that will require painful concessions, but it also exposes the risk that Mr Netanyahu’s coalition will come under unbearable pressure if the talks do proceed.

The Palestinians have also been angered by the Israeli government’s continued expansion of settlements as the talks proceeded, and by reports that Mr Kerry is pushing Mr Abbas to compromise on issues they see as uncrossable “red lines”, including Israel’s demand that they recognise the country as a Jewish state, and their desire to have their future capital in East Jerusalem.

Al-Quds, the Palestinian newspaper, reported on Wednesday that Mr Kerry offered Mr Abbas at a meeting in Paris last month the East Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina as the future Palestinian capital. The Americans do have some limited leverage over the Palestinians in the form of a fourth and final release of 26 prisoners due to take place at the end of March.

Beyond that, the political turmoil in parts of the Middle East has left the Palestinians more isolated.

“One of the big issues this time round is that there is the lack of a real Arab partner because of the instability in the region, there is no powerful backing from Cairo or Amman,” says Vali Nasr, a former senior state department official in the first Obama term and now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the US. “There is no one to provide political cover for the Palestinians if they are going to make difficult concessions.”

Amid such low expectations, it is also not clear if the announcement of a “framework” for negotiations will represent any real advance – or if it will be viewed as just an excuse to continue the talks beyond the April deadline that Mr Kerry set last July, when the negotiations were relaunched.

Observers believe Mr Kerry’s text will include areas where agreement has been found, but will also allow both sides to specify subjects of continued disagreement.

“This is an agreement on a framework – not a framework agreement,” says Aaron David Miller, a former state department official who was closely involved in the Camp David talks under the Clinton administration. “These will not be parameters that both sides have signed up to.”

However, Mr Miller says there could be at least one area where Mr Kerry can point to clear progress. “If there is an agreement on the 1967 border with land swaps, that will be quite an advance,” he says.

Even if he can demonstrate forward momentum, there is another lingering question facing Mr Kerry: the level of support he will receive from his boss. By inviting Mr Abbas to the White House later this month, President Barack Obama has signalled an increased engagement in the talks. However, commentators have expressed doubts over just how much time the president will devote to the talks, given the intensifying threat of a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

According to one former senior state department official who is close to Mr Kerry: “The big question is whether the president himself is prepared to commit the time and energy that Bill Clinton did at Camp David. Will he commit his own prestige to the initiative? At this stage, we honestly do not know.”

Israeli and Palestinian commentators are already speculating about a “Plan B” in which the US-led peace effort collapses and both sides take unilateral steps, possibly resulting in an upsurge of violence in the West Bank. The Palestinians have said that they will renew their push for international recognition at UN institutions, including possibly the International Criminal Court, a move likely to lead to renewed confrontation with Israel.

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