Rice Leads Call to Scale Down U.S. Role in Mideast

Administration frustrated with stance of both Israel and Palestinians, but privately mostly blames Israel.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice.Credit: AP
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The United States is preparing for a possible reduction of its involvement in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. President Barack Obama is expected to meet as early as tomorrow with Secretary of State John Kerry to begin a “reevaluation” of the extent of U.S. involvement. However, U.S. Mideast peace envoy Martin Indyk is to hold a three-way meeting today with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams in an attempt to salvage the talks.

Senior U.S. administration officials say there’s a great deal of frustration at the White House over the point the talks have reached, which Kerry has led for the past 15 months. Obama and his advisers are not said to be blaming Kerry; on the contrary, they are backing him. The New York Times reported yesterday that Obama said in a meeting with his national security adviser Friday that he has “nothing but admiration for the way John has handled this.”

Publicly, the Americans are pointing a finger at both sides, but in private the messages are different. Although the White House is angry at the Palestinians for going to the United Nations, most of its ire is directed at the Israeli government, to which it ascribes most responsibility for the crisis.

This is because the Americans believe Israel failed to honor its pledge to go through with the fourth phase of the Palestinian prisoner release, and because of the publication of a construction tender for housing in East Jerusalem at the most critical juncture on extending the talks.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice is leading the push for a change of strategy regarding the peace process. Senior Israeli and American officials say that Rice believes the United States should reduce its involvement in light of a lack of willingness on the part of the Israelis and Palestinians to make the tough decisions. Rice is one of several White House officials who believe Obama needs to consider stepping back from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as the parties are not making the difficult choices that warrant maintaining the level of U.S. investment of the past eight months.

On Friday, during Kerry’s visit to Morocco, he held the most pessimistic press conference since March 2013, when he launched efforts to move the peace talks ahead. Kerry, who looked tired and depressed, said it was “reality-check time” for the United States in light of steps taken by both parties over the past few days that he said were “not helpful.”

Kerry said there were many issues on the table, but there was a limit to the time the United States could spend on the peace process if the parties themselves were unwilling to take constructive measures. “We’re going to evaluate exactly what is possible and what is not possible,” he said.

A few hours before Kerry’s press conference in Rabat, Morocco, The Washington Post reported that senior American officials had said that Obama believes that although the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was a worthy goal, Kerry’s efforts were reaching their limit.

According to the report, some of Kerry’s close advisers, as well as senior White House officials, believe that if Kerry does not step back, he could be perceived as spending too much time on the Mideast peace process at the expense of other burning international issues, and he could be putting his reputation at risk as well.

On Friday evening, after Kerry’s pessimistic remarks at the press conference, White House spokespeople and the State Department issued softer messages. However, they made clear that both the Israelis and Palestinians bore responsibility for resolving the crisis. Deputy White House Press Secretary Marie Harf told reporters, “There really needs to be some soul-searching here among the two parties to see whether they can move forward.”

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest made similar statements Friday, noting the “responsibility” of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make difficult decisions and “take these difficult steps on their own.” He added, “The difficult steps that the Israelis and Palestinians need to take to try to build some faith are not steps that can be dictated by the United States or any other outside entity.”

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is the chief negotiator with the Palestinians, began over the weekend to prepare for a reduced American role in the peace process. She told Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” that a “correction” had to be made to get the peace talks back on track. “We need more direct talks with the Palestinians, and between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas,” she said.

Livni accused Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel of “intentionally sabotaging” the talks by issuing a tender for 700 housing units in the Gilo area of East Jerusalem, across the Green Line, at the height of the talks. Ariel said in response that Livni “failed miserably” after receiving “unlimited credit to make peace and release murderers,” and is now looking to blame “anyone but herself.”

Despite preparations in the White House for the possibility of abandoning the peace talks, efforts are continuing on the ground to resolve the crisis. Indyk met Friday separately with Livni and Netanyahu’s special envoy to the talks Isaac Molho, and with the Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

The meeting Indyk is expected to hold with the negotiating teams today will be the second three-way meeting the Americans are sponsoring since the blowout in the talks last week. The first meeting, held between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, was very difficult, included exchanges, accusations and threats, and ended at an impasse.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.Credit: AP

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