With a three-hour meeting over dinner last night opposite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plunged back into the thankless task of trying to jumpstart the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
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“I would not have returned here five times − I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t have a belief that this is possible,” Kerry said before joining Netanyahu for a long working dinner at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel.
Kerry’s efforts can be likened to couples therapy. If he charged Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a top psychologist’s fee, Israel would have to increase the cutback in the defense budget. At this stage the treatment is one-on-one. Kerry is convinced his personal familiarity with both patients and their confidence in him will lead them to agree to sit together in the same room and talk to each other again.
In three months of shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kerry has met Abbas and Netanyahu seven times and exchanged countless telephone calls with both.
So far his diplomacy has yielded nothing but some face-saving, limited flexibility from each side aimed mainly at appeasing Kerry and avoiding being blamed for the failure of talks. The core problem is the abyss of suspicion and hostility that separates Netanyahu and Abbas, with neither believing a word the other says.
Most of Kerry’s meetings with Abbas and Netanyahu are tete-a-tetes, each lasting several hours and combining diplomatic debates with heart-to-heart conversations. Kerry listens a lot, trying to allay each man’s fears and raise his motivation.
The American says he is trying to generate confidence in both Netanyahu and Abbas for entering the process he is trying to launch. He is working on a package of principals and mutual gestures that would enable resuming the negotiations.
“What I have set is a standard of actual substantive progress on certain framework issues that are important in order to be able to satisfy both sides that it’s worthwhile to come to the table,” he said at a press conference in Kuwait on Wednesday.
“But the fact is that assurances have to be built up, mistrust has to be overcome, and a series of understandings have to be reached so that we avoid the disappointments and the failures of the past,” he said.
Abbas sees Netanyahu as a swindler who only wants to build settlements, play for time and deceive the whole world. Netanyahu is doubtful whether Abbas can be a partner for peace at all. He suspects Abbas of scheming to pin on him the responsibility for Kerry’s failure, only to relaunch the campaign against Israel in the United Nations the next day.
Netanyahu believes he has persuaded Kerry that he is serious in his intentions about the peace process, but is frustrated that the Palestinians refuse to be persuaded of this.
Netanyahu’s perceived shift
All the ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet are convinced something in him has shifted. Not due to ideology, but to fear. Netanyahu has not fallen in love with the Palestinians or turned into a leftist, but he understands how dangerous the political standstill is for Israel. He is worried over threats of an international boycott and sanctions that would paralyze Israel’s economy and drive investors away.
Netanyahu does not believe his party members would be able to stop the negotiations with the Palestinians, if they are resumed. He has told several people that Israel’s real policy is what he says about his commitment to the two-state solution and the fear of a binational state. He is sure that if he reaches an agreement with the Palestinians and puts it to the public in a referendum, it will win a large majority.
Kerry is due to meet Abbas for lunch in Amman today and will be back in the early afternoon for another meeting with Netanyahu. If Kerry makes any progress he will come to Jerusalem again on Saturday night and meet Abbas once more as well.
American officials said on Thursday there were no scheduled plans for a meeting between Kerry, Netanayhu and Abbas during this trip, while adding that both sides were open to negotiations or at least to sitting down together at the same table.
Kerry is still optimistic, or at least appears to be. But he too is approaching the moment in which he will have to decide whether to give up, resign from the role of diplomatic therapist and move on to deal with the United States’ deteriorating relations with China and Russia.