Kerry may tap Indyk as peace envoy

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Former US ambassador to Israel and Clinton Near East envoy Martin Indyk may take a lead role in helping US Secretary of State John Kerry conduct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, although an official cautioned that a decision has not been finalized.

Indyk, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, did not respond to a query Saturday. Gail Chalef, a spokesperson for Brookings, said Sunday that Indyk was away for the weekend and they declined to comment.

The decision on an envoy or negotiator has not been finalized, an official said Sunday, suggesting that a team of people would be assembled.

“No decision on a negotiator or envoy has been made,” a person familiar with the deliberations said. “The first step was getting the parties back to the table, and now Kerry will determine the right combination of players to work with the parties, knowing it's going to be a slog and that he can't carry it on his own shoulders day in and day out.”

The Back Channel previously reported that former Bill Clinton Middle East advisor Rob Malley may join the State Department Near East bureau, and may also play a role in Kerry's negotiating team.

Kerry announced Friday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would come to Washington in the next week or so after he was able to reach agreement with the parties on a basis to resume negotiations.

The details on the talks would be kept under wraps, Kerry said, given the fragility and political sensitivities of the process. “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead,” he said.

The parties had agreed to stay in negotiations for a minimum of six months, the New York Times reported Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that he believes it is a vital strategic interest of Israel to pursue negotiations at this time, given the threat posed by Iran and to counter the prospect of a bi-national single state.

Resumed diplomacy “is important in and of itself in order to try and bring about the conclusion of the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday. “And it is important in light of the strategic challenges that are before us, mainly from Iran and Syria.”

(Photo: Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat and Martin Indyk, vice president for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar in June 2013. From the Brookings Foreign Policy program Facebook page.)

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Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)


The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading

Romney comments irk Palestinians


GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney told donors at a Jerusalem fundraiser Monday that Jewish culture is one reason that Israel’s economy has been more successful than the Palestinians’, remarks that Palestinian leaders denounced as offensive.

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney, seated next to Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, told some 40 donors at a $50,000 per person breakfast fundraiser at the King David Hotel Monday, the Associated Press reported:

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” he continued.

The remarks “not only offend Palestinians,” but are reminiscent of the stereotype that Jews are good with money, veteran US Middle East trouble shooter Aaron David Miller told Al Monitor Monday, adding: “Mitt Romney is no anti-Semite, he’s just not thinking before he talks.”

Palestinian leaders said the remarks were both uninformed and offensive.

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation,” Saeb Erekat, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Abbas, told the Associated Press.

“It seems to me this man (Romney) lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

Romney, on his two-day trip to Israel, evinced little interest in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. He declined to endorse the two-state solution–a long standing goal of US foreign policy going back 20 years. He also called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, but later equivocated on when the United States should move its embassy there from Tel Aviv. The matter is sensitive for Palestinians who consider East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Continue reading