Secretary of State John Kerry begins a new push on Thursday to revive peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but there are few signs he will make a breakthrough on his fifth visit to the region.
Over the next three days, Kerry will shuffle between meetings with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
His arrival in Amman late on Wednesday was greeted with news that Israel had authorized construction of 69 housing units in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.
“Obviously steps like this are unhelpful, but we remain hopeful that both parties will recognize the opportunity and the necessity to go back to the table,” the State Department said.
Kerry has revealed few details of his strategy to bring the sides together. Negotiations broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Israeli building of Jewish settlements on occupied West Bank land that the Palestinians want for a state.
Most countries deem all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal. Israel, which captured the land in the 1967 Middle East War, disputes this. There are about 120 government-authorized settlements in the West Bank and dozens of outposts built by settlers without official sanction.
Palestinians have made a freeze in settlement construction a condition for resuming the peace talks.
Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted an unnamed minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party as saying that he acknowledged that an accord with the Palestinians would entail a withdrawal from most of the West Bank and evacuation of many settlements.
“Netanyahu understands that for a peace agreement, it will be necessary to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank and evacuate more than a few settlements,” he said. “He knows this is one of the things that will be discussed.”
The overwhelming majority of Israeli West Bank settlers live in blocs that take up around 5-6 percent of the territory, meaning that a withdrawal on the scale envisaged by the minister could leave most of them in place.
However Netanyahu has also spoken of keeping an Israeli military presence on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state – a demand which Palestinians are unlikely to accept. A spokesman for the prime minister said he had no comment on the Haaretz report.
“TIME IS THE ENEMY”
While he has avoided deadlines for an agreement to restart talks, Kerry says he wants to show progress before September, when the United Nations General Assembly resumes its debate over the Middle East.
“Time is the enemy of a peace process,” he said during a visit to Kuwait on Wednesday. “The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don’t want things to happen.”
Kerry acknowledges that resuscitating talks will be difficult, but also believes that with the upcoming U.N. meeting, now is the time to flesh out a peace plan.
“I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t have a belief that this is possible, but this is difficult,” he said in Kuwait, his fourth stop in an eight-nation tour that until now has focused on Syria’s civil war.
Kerry denied Israeli news reports he was working to bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together in Amman this week.
Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel and now at Washington’s Brookings Institute policy think tank, said it was likely that Kerry would be able to restart talks, but unclear whether he could keep the leaders at the table.
“I remain highly skeptical, if only because Kerry’s approach – notwithstanding his personal passion and deep knowledge of the issues – is not fundamentally different than that of his predecessors,” Elgindy said.
“As far as I can tell, there’s been no serious review of past failures or ‘lessons learned’ and the process remains detached from realities on the ground,” he added.
Elgindy said if Kerry’s goal is to “get a process going”, that can be done, but without much success and at considerable political risk, since neither Israelis nor the Palestinians are going to be fooled by a return to a process for its own sake.