February 6, 2013 6:06 pm

Israel and Palestinians top Kerry’s agenda

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A Palestinian protester throws a stone towards an Israeli military vehicle during clashes with Israeli security officers©Reuters

Hopes for a peace settlement are fading but John Kerry's quiet diplomacy may prove effective

Even before John Kerry started work at the state department on Monday, he made weekend calls to world leaders. First on his list were Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr Kerry, who has long coveted the position of secretary of state, has made no secret of his desire to try and revive the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

With President Barack Obama now due to visit Israel in March or April for the first time since he took office, the pressure is on Mr Kerry to put together a strategy to breathe new life into a process which, 20 years after the signing of the Oslo accords, has never seemed so moribund.

On one side, Mr Kerry has received warnings from friends and allies that the US only has limited time to push for a two-state solution. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said last week on a visit to Washington that “this administration could be the last chance to inject the necessary momentum on this issue”. King Abdullah of Jordan added: “If we do not fix it in the next four years, I do not think that it will ever happen.”

Yet there is deep scepticism on both sides of the dispute that the US can reanimate the peace process, which was shelved in 2010 because of fundamental differences over Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements and issues to be included in “final status” talks, such as borders.

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief and director of Tel Aviv University’s influential Institute for National Security Studies, said this week that the negotiating process with the Palestinians was “still in the freezer”. Israel should seek talks with the Palestinian Authority, the INSS said, but be prepared that the probability of reaching agreement on issues of a final settlement was low.

A survey published on Wednesday in the newspaper Israel Hayom found that more than half of Israeli Jewish teenagers did not know what the Oslo Accords – the agreements struck between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s, meant to lead to a final peace treaty – were.

Palestinian officials said they had not been informed beforehand about Mr Obama’s visit, word of which was first reported on Tuesday evening by Israel’s Channel Ten station. After the failure of previous talks they are also sceptical that meaningful progress can be made.

In depth

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staff fixes the presidential seal before US President Barack Obama gives a press conference

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“Negotiations have been carried out as if they were in a vacuum, with no accountability for Israel and no commitments to a timeframe, and Israel continuing to act unilaterally,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said on Wednesday.

On top of that, there is also the bad blood between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, which Aaron David Miller, the former US diplomat, describes as the “most dysfunctional relationship in the history of relations between the two countries”.

“If [the US president] were to try today [to push for final-stage talks], he would fail,” says Mr Miller.

Despite such bleak predictions, some experts believe Mr Kerry’s prospects are not as dire as they may seem. Samuel Lewis, former US ambassador to Israel, said that in the late 1970s, the relationship between President Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was equally poisonous – but that did not prevent the signing of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt.

According to Mr Lewis, Cyrus Vance, then secretary of state, travelled extensively to Israel and Egypt, “building a web of trust with Israel and engaging Egypt to find out where the possibilities were”. He adds: “That is where we are right now.”

Such a low-key role would suit Mr Kerry, who does not have the celebrity status of his predecessor Hillary Clinton but has good relations with most of the key individuals and who is described by colleagues as a patient listener.

When Mr Obama turned his attention to the peace process in his first administration, he ended up in public fights with Mr Netanyahu about settlements. As Mr Lewis puts it, the advantage of Mr Kerry doing a lot of quiet preparatory work is that “the two leaders do not need to deal with each other directly”.

The other opportunity that Mr Kerry has compared to the first Obama term is the likelihood that the new Israeli government, which is still being formed after elections two weeks ago, will be less dominated by the right.

Some Israeli media speculated that Mr Obama’s visit might be timed to try to influence the make-up of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, by swaying him to bring on board centrist parties such as Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid, the second-largest in the new Knesset.

Mr Lapid says he favours peace talks and an amicable “divorce” from the Palestinians. He also has plenty of views that Palestinians strongly oppose – including keeping Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital – but the election could nevertheless provide some space for quiet US diplomacy.

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