Kerry’s Gamble: A Resounding First Victory or Political Humiliation

The Secretary of State might not be returning to the region soon, but he will continue to pressure Netanyahu and Abbas into saying yes to his plan, the outlines of which are sketched here.

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to explain at a press conference at Ben-Gurion International Airport why he had been investing most of his time over the past months in a desperate attempt to renew the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

He said that in every country he had visited – China, Japan, throughout Europe and in the Persian Gulf – and before coming here, during meetings with the foreign ministers of Brazil and New Zealand – the first question that came up was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  “This is a global concern,” Kerry said.

On Friday, Kerry concluded precisely two months of talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. During that time he met privately and spoke on the phone with each of them at least 10 times. Kerry was considering returning to Jerusalem and Ramallah one more time on Monday, but felt that for the time being he had gotten as much as possible out of the talks with the two leaders, and that now the ball was in their court.

Before he left, the secretary made clear to Netanyahu and Abbas that he expects answers within one to two weeks.  He said he was going to be dealing with other of his responsibilities as secretary of state while others, meaning Abbas and Netanyahu, thought about “the hard decisions that need to be made.”

“We need to allow folks to make their decisions within a reasonable framework in the next days ahead,” Kerry said.

From statements Kerry made at the press conference, we can try to sketch the outlines of his plan for renewing negotiations:

Israel and the Palestinians will renew direct talks without preconditions. During the talks, the parties will refrain from provocative statements or actions, which Kerry said “take us backwards.” That is, the Palestinians will avoid incitement against Israel, while Israel will stay away from moves like massive construction in the settlement, legalizing outposts or demolishing Palestinian homes.

Negotiations will be held first of all on the borders of the future Palestinian state and the security arrangements Israel requires. The guiding principle of the talks, Kerry said, will be to integrate Israeli demands with Palestinian demands – “along the 1967 lines with swaps and recognizing changes that have taken place on the ground” – in other words, the large settlement blocks.

Kerry stressed that he does not want the issue of construction in the settlements to become a precondition that will prevent the resumption of talks, “…because if you can negotiate borders, and if you negotiate security and get to a final settlement, you have resolved the issue of settlements themselves.” The way to resolve the issue, Kerry said, “is by deciding what is in the Palestinian state and what are the rules there and what is Israel and what are the rules there.”

However, Kerry did make clear to Netanyahu that he expects to see Israel “take steps that indicate a willingness to try to move forward.” Kerry did not demand a full freeze on construction in the settlements, including private construction. But he does expect Netanyahu to show restraint that would manifest itself in stopping government tenders.

With regard to construction in the settlements, Kerry said: “We believe they should stop,” and said that such actions “are not necessarily constructive with respect to the process.”

Kerry noted that: “There are some private and individual permits granted some time ago, and in terms of the legality, there is no capacity to move on them. But in other ways, certainly the government has an ability to be able to make a difference here in the next months.”

Kerry might not be returning to the region over the next two weeks, but he and some of his colleagues elsewhere in the world can be expected to continue marathon phone calls to Netanyahu and Abbas, and to pressure them into saying yes to Kerry’s plan. This weekend, senior Palestinian officials said, heavy pressure was already being applied on the Palestinian president to renew talks without preconditions.

“All the foreign ministers who were here in recent days urged Abu Mazen [Abbas] to accept Kerry’s proposal although they knew very well that Netanyahu does not agree to freeze construction in the settlements or negotiate based on the ’67 borders,” a senior Palestinian official said. “There is international understanding of the Palestinian position, but there is also concern that Kerry’s initiative is the last chance to achieve a two-state solution.”

Jerusalem and Ramallah are both trying to do anything possible to show a positive approach to Kerry’s efforts. Netanyahu’s and Abbas’ biggest fear is to be the ones that Kerry blames for the failure of the American initiative. Both leaders also understand that if Kerry fails, the Americans could present a peace plan of their own, or simply step out of the region and leave the Israelis and the Palestinians to their fates.

In Abbas’ speech on Saturday at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, Abbas sounded more up-beat than in previous weeks. He refrained from a harsh attack on Israel and did not present a halt to construction in the settlements as a precondition to renewing negotiations. He said that Kerry’s efforts to renew the peace process “brought hope, and it is hoped they will achieve results.”

Despite Netanyahu’s objections to quite a few of Kerry’s ideas, the Israeli premier is doing all he can to show support for the efforts of the U.S. secretary of state. "Netanyahu appreciates Kerry's efforts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," a senior Israeli official said after Kerry's departure. "We welcome his comments calling for the renewal of direct talks between the two sides. Israel has already reached that decision – we are prepared to launch direct negotiations with the Palestinians immediately."

At the press conference before Kerry’s departure Friday, he reiterated four times the message that Netanyahu and Abbas had to make “hard decisions” in the coming days. If they respond favorably and renew the talks, Kerry can chalk up a first victory over Middle Eastern skepticism. The opposite outcome will mean a personal humiliation for the secretary.