Dueling expectations ahead of Obama's Israel trip

Analysis: US Secretary of State John Kerry tries to lower expectations of Obama’s upcoming visit in European capitals.

John Kerry and William Hague 370 (photo credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters)
John Kerry and William Hague 370
(photo credit: Remo Casilli/Reuters)
If the order in which things are said is telling of priorities and concern, then the world got an interesting look at different agendas this week when traveling US Secretary of State John Kerry and his host, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, met the press in London on Monday.
As is customary, the two held a brief press conference after their meeting – Kerry’s first abroad as secretary of state – and Hague got the ball rolling with an opening statement.
“We’ve had detailed and very thorough talks covering the full range of global affairs,” he said. “Top of our agenda was the Middle East, including the importance we both attach to ending the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and I welcome the focus that he has brought to bear on this issue since his appointment. There is no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013 than restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The region and the world can’t afford the current dangerous impasse in the peace process; for if we don’t make progress very soon, then the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve.”
There you have it. More than 60,000 Syrians have been slaughtered in that country, Iran continues to march toward nuclear capability, North Korea recently detonated another nuclear device, Europe’s economy is teetering on the brink, but for Hague and the British Foreign Office “there is no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013” than Israel and the Palestinians.
“So,” Hague continued, ”there’s a burning need for the international community to revive the peace process in efforts led by the United States and supported by European, Arab and other nations.
And my promise to Secretary Kerry today was that the United Kingdom will make every effort to mobilize the European Union and Arab states behind decisive moves for peace. And I warmly welcome President Obama’s planned visit to the Middle East this spring and, indeed, Secretary Kerry’s own travel to the region shortly.”
After Israel and the Palestinians, Hague touched briefly on a few of the other issues facing the world, in the following order: Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the G8 and transatlantic trade.
Then Kerry took the podium and reversed that order. He spoke first of trade, then support for fledgling democracies, then Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and – at the very end – Israel and the Palestinians.
“And finally, on the Middle East peace process, I appreciate deeply William’s and the UK’s unwavering support for that goal,” Kerry said, signaling that he was about to launch into the regular platitudes.
“We share a vision, as I think people in the world do, of two states living side by side in peace and security. Today, we talked about how we can support the two parties reaching that end, because frankly that is the only way to achieve a lasting peace. So I look forward to continuing to work with William on these and so many other issues, including working together on the agenda for the G8 summit later this year. And, I might comment, I know President Obama is looking forward to his visit to the region in an effort to try to begin to make decisions about the path forward.”
There you have it – Kerry put the Israeli diplomatic process at the end of his to-do list, Hague put it at the very top of his. And it is safe to say that Kerry put it at the tail end of his remarks not because this is not something that is important to him and his boss, but rather because, since Obama announced that he will be coming to Israel at the end of March, the US has done everything it can to lower expectations of any dramatic breakthrough during that visit.
While there have been voices in Washington, as well as in European and Arab capitals, advising Obama to come here and “lay down the law,” put forward a set of “Obama Parameters” that would delineate how a final agreement needed to look, Kerry – in a speech in Germany this week – took pains to disabuse anyone of that notion.
Obama would not be carrying a peace plan in his briefcase when traveling to Israel, he told a group of students in Germany this week. The president was coming in a listening, not a dictating, mode.
“We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down and tell everybody what they have to do,” Kerry said. “I want to consult and the president wants to listen.”
His words obviously fell on welcome ears in the Prime Minister’s Office, which does not want the US riding into the process – as Obama did when he first came into office four years ago – shooting from the hip (the demand at the time for a complete Israel settlement freeze) and, by so doing, further complicating the process.
But the prime minister’s advisers would do well to pay attention to what else Kerry told the German students: after the trip, the administration would see how it might pursue peace.
In other words, stay tuned.
While there are a lot of other issues on Obama’s plate – not only international ones but also some pretty dire domestic ones like sequestration – the Israeli-Palestinian issue can not be ignored.
If anything, the violence in Judea and Samaria brought that point home to Washington this week.
And while Washington is formally playing down expectations of any breakthrough, behind the scenes considerable activity is taking place: various envoys are coming and going and numerous meetings between mid-level diplomats from various capitals are being held. One Western diplomatic official referred to these as “brainstorming” sessions.
Kerry left Washington on Sunday for his maiden trip abroad as secretary of state, a 10-day trip that – at its end this week – will have taken him to Britain, Germany, France, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
And it is a safe bet that at each and every one of those stops he is coming under pressure to do something – anything – to move the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process forward.
Or, as the UN’s Robert Serry said two weeks ago at Wilton Park, a UK Foreign Office agency that is a forum for discussion on global issues, “At the end of the day, you can’t have a Palestinian Authority without a political horizon, without a viable political horizon.”
Kerry obviously heard time and time again during his meetings in Europe that Obama simply could not come to Jerusalem and Ramallah and depart without leaving behind some political horizon.
“The US is playing down expectations,” the Western diplomatic official said, “but in practice, with all the meetings, there is something going on.”
Among the ideas being bandied around, he said, was the “recycling” of certain items from previous agreements that have not been put into practice, and implementing them to begin creating a better atmosphere.
The official added that Israel was fully in the loop – both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy to the Palestinians Yitzhak Molcho and National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror were in the US recently – and there was a realization that the whole exercise would be fruitless without Israeli consultation and cooperation.
Kerry’s trip is taking him to capitals that will impress upon him the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Andreas Reinicke, the very much under-the-radar EU envoy to the Middle East, explained two weeks ago at that Wilton Park forum with Serry why the Europeans see this issue as so central.
“The European angle is that this conflict is very close to European borders,” Reinicke said. “Cyprus is 100 kilometers from Israel, [and since] we have a common border inside common EU territory, a conflict in that area also influences in western Spain and northern Finland.”
“It is a fundamental interest of the European Union to have this conflict resolved,” he said. In addition, he continued, this issue for Europe “is a neighborhood issue,” and a very emotional one “because it is a religious place,” because it is a “Christian issue” and because Israel is a Jewish state “and the relationship between Jews and Europe has been difficult, the Holocaust only the worst part of it.”
To make matters more difficult, he said, is that the issue has been “complicated by developments in the Arab world.”
While Israel will try to convince Kerry and Obama when they arrive together that it is precisely because of those developments in the Arab world that reaching a grand Israeli-Palestinian bargain now is so unrealistic, the Europeans are undeterred and – as Hague made abundantly clear – are lobbying the US administration to agree that “there is no more urgent foreign policy priority in 2013 than restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”