Analysis |

Kerry's War of Attrition to Bring Israel and Palestinians to Negotiating Table

The U.S. secretary of state ended the freeze through the power of his determination, putting a career reputation of 30 years on the line. Tzipi Livni emerged as a strong force in the government. Only Netanyahu's true intentions remain in question.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Minutes after the Amman press conference in which he announced the renewal of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry boarded a plane back to Washington. He was received in the business class cabin of the plane with a lengthy standing ovation by his entourage.

Kerry deserves the applause. Two months ago, I wrote about Kerry that he is naïve, that instead of conducting himself as the United States' chief diplomat, he is acting as a lone ranger who still thinks he's a senator, propelled by messianic zeal and the belief he was sent by the gods to bring peace to the Middle East.

Kerry proved many wrong in Jerusalem and Ramallah. The U.S. secretary of state managed to end the impasse of more than three years in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy with the power of his will. He spent the majority of his time over past four months working on the issue, with almost no backing or even faith from within the American government in general and the State Department in particular.

Kerry did act like a senator - for better and for worse. Despite the criticism it engendered, including from the writer of these lines, Kerry took advantage of his 30 years of experience in American politics in bringing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.

Unlike his predecessor in the state department Hillary Clinton, Kerry became neither shocked nor exasperated by the intransigence, excuses and manipulations of Netanyahu and Abbas. He attempted to persuade again and again and again. He embraced and supported, but knew how to pressure and to threaten. When a door got shut he came in through the window. He would not release his foot from the throttle and in the end he tired out both Netanyahu and Abbas.

Kerry was willing to stake his reputation and all of his political capital. The gamble was great but so is his diplomatic achievement. After such a long freeze in negotiations, and a lack of any hope for a breakthrough, Kerry's announcement echoed loudly from Marrakesh to Bangladesh.

He was never afraid to get his hands dirty in the swampland that is the Middle East peace process. However, the peril of an imbroglio in the mud or even drowning still lurks. After he moved mountains to renew talks, Kerry has now reached the truly tough part. The lack of trust between the sides is still strong and the gap between Netanyahu and Abbas is still cavernous. Kerry will attempt to construct a bridge over abyss but let's hope he does not plunge down into oblivion.

The announced renewal in direct peace talks also represents a personal triumph for Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. In the last election she was almost entirely alone in running on a platform prioritizing the peace process. She told anyone who would listen what the peace process was about and why the two-state solution is critical for Israel's future. This moment is the realization of her promise to voters.

Ever since entering Netanyahu's coalition, Livni has warned against the strategic threats lurking for Israel if no thaw is reached in the diplomatic freeze including international isolation, divestments, boycotts, and sanctions. The past week's events including the European Union's decision against settlements are evidence Livni read the situation correctly and that her part in the government is more important than ever.

Netanyahu also deserves a good word. From the moment his third term as prime minister began he was worked continuously, though without enough determination, to reduce the diplomatic tensions worked up during his second term. He commenced by repairing his relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama. He also acted to end the crisis with Turkey and apologized over the Gaza flotilla. Finally, he was flexible enough to allow Kerry to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

Netanyahu agreed to a series of gestures toward the Palestinians in the coming months, including the release of hundreds of prisoners. Over the past four months has likewise restrained, relatively speaking, West Bank settlement construction, a slowdown which will hold as long as negotiations are on.

A big question mark remains around Netanyahu's intentions. Is he interested only in a peace process or is he determined to reach a peace accord? If it is only a process he is after, has will have earned himself several months of quiet until the bluff is called. But if he is in it for the real thing, he will have to for the first time present clear stances and explain where for him Israel ends and Palestine begins.  

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Ramallah, July 19, 2013.Credit: AP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at Queen Alia International Airport on July 19, 2013.Credit: AP