U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently prevented a meeting from taking place between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to senior Palestinian and Israeli officials.
State Department spokesman John Kirby, however, said the details were not accurate.
On Monday, Abbas met in Paris with four retired Israeli ambassadors. There he said he had expressed a willingness in recent weeks to meet with Netanyahu but that “a third party who is not Israeli” had blocked the meeting. Senior Palestinians and Israelis said Abbas was alluding to an incident that took place this month.
Netanyahu has been conveying to Abbas for weeks now, both publicly and through official and unofficial channels, that he wants to meet to discuss the possibility of reviving the peace process. Netanyahu is doing this amid concerns about initiatives by international players, and amid the escalating violence in the territories and Abbas’ threat to tell the UN General Assembly he will reassess or suspend clauses in the Oslo Accords.
In the framework of the messages between Netanyahu and Abbas, an official who is not American tried to initiate a meeting between the two leaders. Abbas responded positively but said he had to consult with Kerry on the matter.
Palestinian and Israeli officials said Kerry asked Abbas not to hold the meeting and to wait a few weeks until the two met at the UN General Assembly in New York.
A meeting between Abbas and Kerry took place on Saturday night.
It is not entirely clear why Kerry made this unusual request of Abbas. Kerry has been the key international player in recent years trying to promote the peace process. Palestinian officials said Kerry did not want a meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas to take place without American involvement and his personal mediation.
Another possibility, suggested by Israeli officials, is that Kerry was still preoccupied with the passage of the Iranian nuclear agreement in Congress and could not devote time to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
U.S. sources cast doubt on Abbas and his associates’ version of events, which they said seemed like a Palestinian attempt to place responsibility on Washington for Abbas’ reluctance to meet with Netanyahu.
The claims by Palestinian officials that Kerry asked Abbas to wait and not meet with Netanyahu at this time does not mean the secretary of state does not want to handle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
On the contrary, although the White House is still saying the administration is reassessing its policy on the peace process, Israeli and American officials are saying that after the Iranian nuclear agreement passes in Congress and reaches the implementation stage, Kerry wants to renew efforts toward a breakthrough in the peace process.
“The secretary is interested in reengaging on the issue,” a senior U.S. official said. “He is talking to a full range of experts and stakeholders to better understand the options as part of our ongoing policy review.”
One official interested in the peace process with whom Kerry has met is opposition leader Isaac Herzog. The two held a two-hour private meeting 10 days ago in London that dealt almost exclusively with the peace process.
Israeli sources who were informed about the details of the discussion said Kerry did not come with a set plan but told Herzog he wanted to make another effort to push the process forward. Israeli political issues also came up during the meeting; for example, Kerry asked about the government’s stability and Netanyahu’s maneuver room with his current coalition.
According to one Israeli source familiar with details of the meeting, Herzog and Kerry also discussed the scenario of an Israeli unity government. But Herzog told Haaretz that this issue did not come up at all. A senior U.S. official did not completely deny the matter.
“Kerry was in listening mode during the meeting in London,” he said. “He specifically stated that he and the administration were not in the business of advising on internal Israeli politics. It is entirely up to Israel’s leaders and the Israeli people to make all the choices about the shape of their government.”
Even if Kerry does not admit it publicly, the establishment of a unity government with Herzog’s Zionist Union could buoy the renewed peace initiative Kerry wants to lead.
“If a unity government is formed in Israel, Kerry can go to Obama and persuade him that despite the past failures, there’s a good reason to invest the year Obama has left in his term in another attempt to push forward a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement,” an Israeli source said.