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Kerry’s Mideast shuttle diplomacy just beginning

Secretary of State John Kerry may not have scored a diplomatic coup during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, but America’s top diplomat is just beginning what will but a long push to restart the peace process, according to sources and experts. Kerry traveled to the region for the third time in ...

Matty Ster/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images
Matty Ster/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images

Secretary of State John Kerry may not have scored a diplomatic coup during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, but America's top diplomat is just beginning what will but a long push to restart the peace process, according to sources and experts.

Kerry traveled to the region for the third time in two months this week and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. After Kerry left town, Israeli newspapers published a series of anonymous quotes from senior Israeli officials stating that Israeli had rejected Kerry's proposals for using confidence-building measures as a pathway to a resumption of direct talks.

Secretary of State John Kerry may not have scored a diplomatic coup during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, but America’s top diplomat is just beginning what will but a long push to restart the peace process, according to sources and experts.

Kerry traveled to the region for the third time in two months this week and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. After Kerry left town, Israeli newspapers published a series of anonymous quotes from senior Israeli officials stating that Israeli had rejected Kerry’s proposals for using confidence-building measures as a pathway to a resumption of direct talks.

"I believe that if we can get on a track where people are working in good faith to address the bottom-line concerns, it is possible to be able to make progress and make peace," Kerry told staff at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

The range of reported confidence-building measures that Kerry is seeking from the Israelis is long, and could include concessions related to economic development in the West Bank, the transfer of control over parts of what’s known as Area C near the Dead Sea to the Palestinians, or the release of some Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. The Israeli media has  also reported that Kerry is trying to restart talks on the issues of borders and security first, leaving issues like the right of return for later.

"Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation," a senior Israeli official told Haaretz. "He thinks that the conflict is primarily over territory … and that is wrong."

But multiple sources told The Cable that Kerry’s discussions with both parties were not so specific as to seek commitment to any particular confidence-building measures; Kerry at this stage is simply seeking Israeli buy-in to the concept of confidence-building measures as a step toward talks. But the anonymous Israeli official seemed to reject this construct as well.

"If negotiations are renewed, we will be willing to perform many gestures and steps, but they will take place as part of a process that is already underway," the official said.

Former Rep. Robert Wexler, now the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, told The Cable that the Israeli officials bashing Kerry on background are simply posturing ahead of what will be a protracted process that will play out over several months, if not years.

"I don’t think that Secretary Kerry or the administration was rebuked. I think the Israelis are reacting to what they think is a recalcitrant Palestinian leadership and the Palestinians are reacting to what they think is a recalcitrant Israeli leadership and Secretary Kerry is in the middle," he said. "Invariably both sides will take exception to what Secretary Kerry is trying to promote and achieve. That’s normal. That might be a necessary first step, what occurred this week. Not a pleasant one but a necessary one to allow Kerry to get to step two with both parties and achieve a more positive result."

Kerry and his inner circle, which includes the heavy influence of senior Middle East advisor Frank Lowenstein, are not naïve about the difficulty of the new peace process initiative they are proposing, Wexler said. They are taking a long view and are planning several more visits by Kerry to the region — the kind of shuttle diplomacy that was taken on by special envoys in past situations.

"The way I see it, you have a secretary of state who earnestly and for all of the right reasons is trying to make sense out of a very messy situation and he is trying to infuse rationality and a degree of trust into a dynamic which is poisoned with too much irrationality and distrust," Wexler said. "It’s a monumental task that Secretary Kerry is taking on… there will be continuous setbacks and he knows that."

The advantages of having the secretary of state handle the diplomacy personally outweigh the disadvantages, Wexler argued, which include distracting Kerry from other matters around the world and placing the new secretary’s credibility on the line very early on in the process.

The Obama administration needs to prove to both sides that it is committed to this new peace push in order to pressure both sides to dislodge themselves from their positions of inertia, Wexler said.

"Both parties are now seeking to ascertain is how persistent is the administration going to be? How much skin is Kerry and Obama prepared to put in the game?" Wexler said. "If both sides perceive that both Kerry and Obama are willing to bleed some, then the parties will become more accommodating."

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians can be expected to resist Kerry’s initiative in the press because they are both posturing ahead of a possible direct negotiation, according to Wexler.

"For the time being, their strategy will be not to agree with what Secretary Kerry is promoting," he said. "Kerry’s team is developing a 2, 3, 4 year strategy, because they understand all the obstacles that will be presented. This is the only reasonable course that has any likelihood of success and that’s a reflection of the dire situation that we’re in."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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