US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled his determination to launch a new Middle East peace bid in the coming days, warning the time to get a two state solution is drawing to a close. But he offered few details of how new peace talks might avoid the pitfalls that have led earlier efforts to collapse.
“What happens in the coming days will dictate what happens in the coming decades,” Kerry told a Washington conference of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Monday, as the State Department said that Kerry planned to make his fifth trip as Secretary to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next week.
“Time is running out,” Kerry waned. “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”
Kerry, in his first major speech to a US Jewish audience since becoming Secretary of State, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas peace partners, who shared his commitment to reach a negotiated two state solution. While saying he understands why many in the region are skeptical the time is right to achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Kerry warned of the consequences of delay.
“Before anyone gives up hope, you have to ask if you are willing to live with a permanent conflict,” Kerry said. “A realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side.”
Many plugged-in US peace process veterans said they had little understanding of the details of Kerry’s initiative, while some Israeli observers expressed wariness that a fragile new peace effort, without the proper ground-work, was liable to collapse, potentially leading to violence.
Kerry “seems to think just talking to leaders and making speeches will make things happen,” a former senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said Monday. “He shows no appreciation for creating conditions for talks, not has he shown any understanding of the need to build a team or a coalition. He confides in nobody, has no real staff that is empowered, no conceptual thinkers under him, and is starting to appear desperate. That said, I sure hope he knows what he’s doing. Based on what I’ve seen, I have no reason to believe so. ”
The Israeli leadership wants peace, but “may be split between those who don’t believe the other side can deliver, and those who in addition are not yet ready [or] willing to put on the table what they know they’re going to do one day,” one Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said Sunday.
“What they also want,” the Israeli official continued, “is a way to legitimately blame the Palestinians and not get blamed if it doesn’t happen now, which, to be fair, most think it won’t.”
“My guess is [Kerry] has no illusions about Netanyahu, and he knows President [Obama] will not expend heavy duty capital to rein him in,” one veteran Israeli peace activist, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.
“So I think his goal is to regenerate talks, by sewing a quilt out of a box full of shmattes”—the Yiddush word for rags and scraps of cloth—“the Arab Peace Initiative, multilateralism, even the Tony Blair economic peace; towards the goal of getting a controlled collapse a year from now (when the Israeli public might get rid of Bibi), rather than a chaotic collapse this summer,” he continued.
Kerry is “focused on starting several interconnected talks between the two parties, with the hope that progress on different fronts would entice each side into more flexible peace talks than those that have failed repeatedly in the past,” the Associated Press reported Monday.
Among the potential enticements to get the parties to the table, US officials told the AP, is recent Israeli restraint, if not a total freeze, in settlement building; and a $4 billion Palestinian investment plan, to be led by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, that Kerry announced at the World Economic Forum in Jordan last week.
Kerry has also enlisted former US deputy Centcom commander retired Gen. Jon Allen to develop security ideas to address Israel’s security concerns about a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. Meantime, Washington is pressing the PA’s Abbas not to carry through with a vow to seek membership in more UN institutions, including the International Criminal Court, if peace talks haven’t resumed later this month.
The Arab League last month reissued its Arab Peace Initiative, while newly agreeing for the first time to endorse that land-swaps could be part of a mutually agreed Israeli Palestinian peace agreement on borders, Kerry reminded the AJC audience.
“Israel will be made stronger through a peace agreement and… we are all committed…to make that a reality,” Kerry said Monday, urging the US Jewish community to tell their leaders they stand “behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side by side, and you are part of a great constituency for peace.”
Former American Jewish Congress president Robert K. Lifton, a founding member and former president of the Israel Policy Forum, told Al-Monitor in an interview Saturday that he did not think the new initiative would succeed, without the U.S. putting forward its own plan.
“If we want there to be a deal, if that is in the U.S. interest, then the process we are going through now, will not end up with anything,” Lifton, author of a new memoir, An Entrepreneur’s Journey, said. Both parties were at best ambivalent, and would not make the concessions required without the US putting forward its own plan, taking it to the UN, and pressing the sides, he said.
“The raised expectations produced by the public profile and fanfare of Kerry’s current effort only hurt the modest chances of modest success,” Middle East analyst Natan Sachs, of the Brookings Institution, wrote at Haaretz Monday. But while “Kerry will probably not produce peace, US engagement may help yet to limit the damage of non-peace.”
But some in Israel’s peace camp said they thought there had been a shift in the relationship between the US administration and the Israeli public since Obama’s March trip to Israel.
“Kerry has the potential to be an impressive figure,” Uri Misgav, a journalist at Israeli daily Haaretz, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Washington last week. “He was in combat. The Israeli public knows his name. If he chooses to speak to the Israeli public directly, Israelis at this stage are eager for change and hope–even if they don’t know it yet.”
(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, DC on June 3, 2013. State Department photo/ Public Domain.)