Monday, 1 July 2013

The optimistic Mr Kerry

“I would not have returned here five times – I would not be here now – if I didn’t have a belief that this is possible.” The words of US Secretary of State John Kerry on 27 June 2013, prior to joining Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for a long working dinner at Jerusalem’s David Citadel hotel.

By “this”, Kerry must surely mean a peace agreement ending the interminable Palestinian-Israeli dispute – though he would undoubtedly count it a feather in his cap simply to engineer the presence of the two men at the same negotiating table. That in itself would be a noteworthy first step in his current peace-making endeavours – a step his predecessor in office, Hillary Clinton, achieved, though with no positive outcome, back in September 2010.

Has John Kerry a trick or two up his sleeve to ensure that history does not repeat itself – that talks launched with high hopes, expressed by all parties, do not again peter out in a welter of recriminations?

During an earlier Middle East visit by John Kerry, an authoritative speculation, which described itself as an “exclusive”, affirmed that Kerry had obtained the agreement of both Netanyahu and Abbas for a novel plan to run peace negotiations simultaneously on twin tracks. The first track would have Israel facing the Palestinian Authority (PA) across the table; the second would, for the first time ever, see Israel facing the Arab League in direct discussions.

If true, this – or an arrangement along these lines – would mirror the device adopted by Hillary Clinton back in 2010 designed to give political cover to Mahmoud Abbas, since sitting down at the same table as Israel’s prime minister would be sticking his neck out as regards his own Palestinian constituency. To back his gamble, Clinton persuaded both Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan’s King Abdullah, to attend the launch of the negotiations. In the event Abbas, who also had the backing of the Arab League for his presence, was well supported.

By bringing the Arab League directly into the negotiating process, Kerry would similarly be providing the PA president with strong political backing to justify his involvement in direct face-to-face peace talks. Nor is Abbas alone in requiring political support. If Kerry succeeds in bringing the parties together, Netanyahu too needs to be assured that sufficient of his coalition government, and of the Israeli public, are behind him. For both men must surely have in mind the dangers of moving too far or too fast in this peace process minefield. Hovering over any peace discussions must, on the one hand, be the fate of Anwar Sadat (assassinated in 1981 by an Islamist extremist), and on the other of Yitzhak Rabin (assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist).

Which is enough to explain the extreme caution being exercised by both parties to John Kerry’s unremitting efforts to bring them together. In his latest visit to the region he has been unsparing of time and effort in repeatedly meeting Abbas and Netanyahu, as he tries to hammer out a formula, acceptable to both sides, that can lead to the launch of meaningful face-to-face peace discussions.

Media speculation is rife as to what inducements Kerry may have up his sleeve – he has been extremely guarded in his public pronouncements. One persistent rumor, which first surfaced back in the spring, is that an Israel-Palestinian-US-Jordan summit might precede direct talks between Israel and the PA. A press report in Jordan on June 29 reiterated this, and was subsequently qualified, though scarcely denied, by a Jordanian official, who said that such a meeting was not “imminent”.

As John Kerry leaves the Middle East again, after four days of shuttling between the sides, he would assert that his glass is half-full, not half-empty. He affirms that he has “considerably” narrowed the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians, and he believes the start of final-status negotiations could be “within reach”. He declares himself impressed with the “serious commitment” by both sides to resume talks.

Announcing that he would be leaving a team of experts in the region to continue efforts, and that he plans on returning soon, Mr Kerry – ever the optimist – maintains:

“I know progress when I see it, and we are making progress.”

Published in the Jeusalem Post on-line, 1 July 2013:

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