Jerusalem is expecting US Secretary of State John Kerry to return to the region sometime next week in an attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israeli officials said Thursday.
Kerry, who was originally expected this weekend, postponed his trip because of his wife’s illness. This would be his sixth visit to the region since March.
The visit, if it indeed takes place, comes as some in the US are questioning whether this is the area where Kerry should be focusing his time and energy right now.
“The intense focus of Secretary of State John F. Kerry on the long-moribund Israeli- Palestinian peace process when neighboring Egypt is collapsing into chaos and Syria’s civil war rages unabated provokes more than a little head-scratching among diplomats from the Middle East,” The Washington Post editorialized this week.
“Like previous US initiatives, Mr. Kerry’s diplomacy ignores the powerful Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, opposes a peace deal and is capable of disrupting negotiations at any time by resuming missile attacks against Israel,” the paper stated.
“Mr. Kerry banks on the support of Arab states, but two of Israel’s Arab neighbors have no functioning government, while the other two – Jordan and Lebanon – have been all but overwhelmed by the spillover of refugees and fighting from Syria,” it added.
US sources said that even inside the State Department there is little confidence that Kerry’s efforts will succeed, which is one of the reasons why – they claim – his team of senior staffers working on this issue is so small, primarily made up of two men: Frank Lowenstein, his Middle East adviser, and Jonathan Schwartz, a State Department legal expert.
According to these sources, US President Barack Obama – who, beyond giving Kerry public backing, has kept a low profile during the secretary of state’s efforts to prod the sides back to the table – has given Kerry the green light to try to move the sides together, but does not want to get too personally involved to avoid a diplomatic failure.
The sources said the feeling in the White House was that in this way if Kerry succeeded, Obama would obviously enjoy much of the credit, but if he failed, then Obama could distance himself from the failure that would be dropped at Kerry’s doorstep.
Two weeks ago, Kerry spent a frenetic 72 hours shuttling between Amman, Jerusalem and Ramallah – including more than 20 hours of talks in six separate meetings with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – trying to bridge gaps between them and restart the talks.
One issue that separated the sides was the release of Palestinian prisoners, with the Palestinians demanding an immediate release of some 120 terrorists incarcerated before the 1993 Oslo Accords, and Netanyahu willing to release a certain number, but only in phases as the negotiations progressed.
The Prime Minister’s Office denied outright a report in Ma’ariv on Thursday that Netanyahu had changed his mind, and would release 40 prisoners, including some with “blood on their hands,” as a goodwill gesture even before the Palestinians agreed to return to talks.