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U.S. effort for Mideast talks elicits praise, reservations

Israeli and Palestinian officials privately say chances of success remain low for Secretary of State John F. Kerry's push to revive peace talks.

May 23, 2013|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the West Bank. Kerry also met separately with Israeli officials.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry meets with Palestinian Authority… (Fadi Arouri / Pool Photo )

JERUSALEM — Wrapping up his fourth Holy Land trip in three months, Secretary of State John F. Kerry voiced optimism Thursday that his low-profile campaign to relaunch U.S.-brokered peace talks is making headway.

But although the top American diplomat is winning praise for persistence, Israeli and Palestinian officials privately say chances of success remain low and Kerry's effort has yielded no tangible results so far.

Kerry, who held separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said serious work was underway.

"It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient — but detailed and tenacious — that we can lay out a path ahead that could conceivably surprise people," Kerry said. He said he would exhaust all possibilities in the effort for peace.

But privately, Israeli officials said Kerry was pursuing mostly well-worn ideas, such as goodwill concessions, that have failed to get traction in the past.

"I don't think anyone expects a breakthrough right now," said an Israeli government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue. "The obstacles are too high. It doesn't seem like he's managed to move the sides."

After taking office in February, Kerry renewed American engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a level not seen since President Obama's first two years in office. Kerry said he would spend about three months exploring whether it is possible to restart talks.

Officials say Kerry's numerous visits, meetings and weekly phone calls with Netanyahu, Abbas and their negotiators represent the most aggressive personal effort by a U.S. secretary of State since Condoleezza Rice attempted to broker a deal in the final months of the George W. Bush administration in 2008.

Yet several of Kerry's attempts to build early momentum with modest achievements have already stalled or collapsed.

In early April, he confidently announced he would unveil in a matter of days a series of economic programs to jump-start the Palestinian economy and create jobs. It was expected to include an agreement by Israel to relinquish administrative control of some West Bank land parcels.

But some in Netanyahu's government balked at the idea of making such concessions, and details of the economic plan have yet to be announced.

Kerry helped broker a compromise that would allow delegates from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to accept a Palestinian invitation to visit Jerusalem's Old City in exchange for Palestinians dropping five anti-Israel resolutions pending at the culture agency.

But on Monday Israel canceled the UNESCO visit, saying Palestinians had violated the terms of the agreement.

And despite a U.S. request that Israel quietly halt new settlement projects, Netanyahu's government announced this week that it planned to retroactively authorize four settlements that it had previously promised to demolish because they were built without explicit permission.

To many, Kerry's biggest accomplishment so far is persuading an Arab League delegation to soften its stance on its 2002 peace initiative, which offered Israel recognition by Arab nations in exchange for creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 boundaries. The delegation for the first time acknowledged that mutually agreed-upon land swaps could be part of the final deal.

It was largely symbolic, because Israelis and Palestinians had previously negotiated under such a framework. But it opened the door for broader regional involvement in peace talks, which might appeal to Israel, particularly if it allows Israel to address security issues such as Iran in its deal with Palestinians.

"It's the most intriguing thing that Kerry has accomplished so far," said Yossi Alpher, an independent Middle East analyst. "This could enable Netanyahu to say to the Israeli public, 'Yes, I'm making some painful concessions, but the payoff is on the broader strategic issue of Iran.'"

Yet there are no signs that either side is softening its positions and the main stumbling block remains Israel's settlement construction, which most of the international community deems illegal. Palestinians have refused to resume talks until Israel stops building on land it seized in the 1967 Middle East War.

Palestinians say they are giving Kerry until next month to show progress, after which they will resume their campaign for international statehood recognition.

In testimony to the United Nations in New York, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Monday that the Palestinian Authority has completed the legal work needed to join 63 U.N. agencies, conventions and treaties, but will not formally apply, so as to give Kerry more time.

Palestinians praised Kerry's effort, but said U.S. policy remains skewed in favor of Israel.

"But I'm hesitant to say we are seeing a miraculous transformation in American policy and its blind strategic alliance with Israel," said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee.

Right-wing Israeli lawmakers and settler advocates say Kerry is too focused on achieving Palestinian statehood.

"He's going down the same path we've been on," said Danny Dayan, the foreign envoy for Yesha Council, which represents Israeli settlers.

"As long as the aim of the process is a two-state formula, it will fail. For 20 years that has been the only game in town and we are not even one inch closer."

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