The last thing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry really wanted to do Sunday was to hop on a plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport and fly to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of the sultanate of Brunei, for the summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.
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And Kerry said as much, noting at an airport news conference here in Israel that if he didn't have to attend the summit, he would have remained in the region and continued working on his mediation between Israel and the Palestinians, hoping to get talks restarted. Over the past three months, and particularly over the past three days, Kerry did what American secretaries of state did for quite some time. He plunged into the quagmire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undeterred by the stench and the mosquitoes. And he gave American involvement in the peace process a boost that it had not received in the past five years.
Kerry has been attempting not to publicly clash with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At the conclusion of his visit to Israel Sunday, he chose to praise the two for the seriousness with which they were approaching the negotiations. Kerry has good intentions. He expresses empathy. He's a good listener and freely delivers friendly pats on the back. The problem is that he's also too soft. To move things forward, he has to step up the pressure on both sides and maybe even deliver a few slaps.
For his part, however, a senior Israeli official who is involved in the contacts insists the American secretary of state is not naïve. With his hands-on approach, Kerry gets down to the nitty-gritty. He has his own positions, but he has also been trying to be fair and balanced. In several instances over the past few days, according to the senior Israeli source, Kerry also pounded on the table.
The primary problem with the American efforts to jumpstart the peace process it is Kerry – and not Netanyahu or Abbas – who has the most motivation to resume negotiations. In the face of Kerry's strong desire to move things forward, Abbas in particular, has been dragging his feet, although Netanyahu has too. The Palestinian president has been pedantically stubborn when it comes to choice of wording and technical details and has been rejecting most of Netanyahu's suggestions. And Netanyahu has continued to respond stingily and unreceptively to the Palestinians' requests.
Kerry has not managed to convince Abbas of Netanyahu's good intentions. Palestinian trust in Netanyahu did not increase even after Haaretz published that senior cabinet minister said Netanyhu is prepared to withdraw from most West Bank lands in return for security demands. Nor has the fact that Netanyahu is preparing both the public and the politicians for land concessions, along with his statements about a possible national referendum, have so far convinced Abbas.
On the other side, the situation is almost identical. Netanyahu is not convinced that the Palestinian president wants to negotiate with him at all. In Israel, it has not been possible to discern whether Abbas' hesitance and obstinacy are the product of internal political difficulties or simply a lack of will and a strategic decision to pursue gains at the United Nations. Netanyahu told Kerry that he is not certain that Abbas' stance can be remedied with any kind of gesture on Israel's part.
Kerry plans to return to the region soon, but his time is running out. He is aware of that and is attempting to explain that to Netanyahu and Abbas, but is not doing so forcefully enough. Time allows "people who want to undermine efforts to make peace to undertake their activities," Kerry said in his airport remarks, and allows for "unforeseen events to even enter into a closing window."
Kerry has not failed in his efforts—so far. There are too many in the Israeli government and in the Palestinian Authority who would like to see him throw in the towel and make his getaway, but Kerry remains determined. At least at this stage, he doesn't intend to give those people the pleasure of seeing him shift his efforts to dealing with other international crises instead. And even if Kerry doesn't manage to restart the negotiations, he deserves credit for trying. Failure, if it is to come, shouldn’t be blamed on him, but rather on Netanyahu and Abbas.