U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah December 5, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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WASHINGTON - The senior Israeli officials who visited the White House and the State Department Friday – including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, opposition head MK Isaac Herzog and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen – found their interlocutors preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine.

The crisis in Crimea, which seems only to be at the beginning, will seemingly overshadow the visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House Monday.

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Netanyahu, who in any case is critical of the American administration’s dealing with various crises worldwide, will certainly look on with amazement and concern over the weakness the Americans have shown so far vis-à-vis President Vladimir Putin.

Despite the crisis, attempts to achieve a framework agreement for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians continue to fill a good part of the day of both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Two senior Israeli officials who have talked to senior U.S. officials in recent days said that, in contrast to the past, they sensed pessimism regarding the possibility of reaching a framework agreement by the end of March.

U.S. pessimism started about 10 days ago. Meetings between Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris were the watershed. When Abbas returned from Paris, Ilan Baruch – the political adviser to MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) – talked to a number of Abbas’ advisers. He heard anger mixed with disappointment, and that the process was on the verge of collapsing.

MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) last week brought similar messages back to a number of officials at the Knesset, including Livni, after returning from a meeting with Abbas in Ramallah. Livni, who is devoting all her time to preventing a failure of the American peace initiative, is said to be very concerned.

It is unclear whether Kerry made a mistake in understanding the positions and maneuvering room of Abbas, or if the Palestinian president hardened his line suddenly. The bottom line is that the talks in Paris revealed how far away a framework agreement is.

Herzog met with Kerry and U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and encouraged them to keep on working toward an agreement. Herzog told Kerry not to be concerned about noisy protests from the Israeli right, who, Herzog said, “don’t represent the atmosphere in the Israeli street.”

It is difficult to overstate the critical nature of the deadline at the end of March. This is the date when the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners is released. The Americans believes that if understandings about the agreement are not attained by then, it will be very difficult to go through with the release. The result will be a breakdown of the entire process.

As a result, efforts are persisting more intensely than ever. Along with Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama and Kerry tomorrow, Livni – and Netanyahu’s representative, Isaac Molho – will be meeting with Kerry’s advisers. On Tuesday, the Palestinian negotiating team, headed by Saeb Erekat, and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj will arrive in Washington for similar talks. Ten days later, Abbas will come to the White House.

The Americans are looking for ways to square the circle and arrive at proposals that both Netanyahu and Abbas can live with. After reaching certain understandings with Netanyahu, they found they were still far from what Abbas is prepared to accept. A senior Israeli official said one conclusion the Americans have reached from talks with Abbas is that they must adopt a more balanced proposal and persuade Netanyahu to be a bit more flexible, so as to give the Palestinian president room to maneuver allowing him to say yes.

In both the White House and State Department, there are disputes over how to proceed. According to senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, the Americans are studying several ways to move ahead: Continue in attempts to close the gaps and formulate an agreement by the end of 2014; senior Palestinians say that, in light of the poor talks between Abbas and Kerry, the Americans are considering foregoing a written document and making do with general verbal agreements.

A senior Israeli official intimately involved in the talks said some of Obama’s top advisers are considering a dramatic all-or-nothing move – setting out an American document with principles for solutions to the core issues. Netanyahu and Abbas will have to say yes or no to it. If the answer is no, the Americans will leave the peace process until the parties agree.