WASHINGTON WATCH: After Obama trip, what next?

Following Obama's ME visit, John Kerry shows "experience, desire" to undertake responsibility of resuming peace talks.

John Kerry on tarmac 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
John Kerry on tarmac 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Instead of flying home on Air Force One, Secretary of State John Kerry stayed in the Middle East to brief Israeli and Palestinian leaders on President Barack Obama’s meetings and try to answer the big question: What’s next? Obama clearly sided with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in calling for unconditional talks, having long since given up on his demand for a settlement freeze, and urged Palestinian leaders to do the same.
Instead they rebuffed his pleas to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, to drop threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to refrain from taking unilateral anti-Israel actions in UN agencies and to curb anti-Israel incitement in Palestinian media.
It’s not that Obama has changed his mind regarding settlement activity. He still considers it “counterproductive to the cause of peace,” but sees both sides using it as an excuse to avoid talks.
Netanyahu has been calling for unconditional talks all along while pushing settlements, fully aware that the more construction the more remote the two-state solution becomes. As if to prove his point, he has packed his new government’s cabinet with ministers who want to accelerate construction and oppose transferring any more of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
He also brought into his government as chief peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who had made considerable progress in talks with the Palestinians when she was Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister, and then put her on such a short leash as to make one wonder why she even took the job.
Livni is required to clear all discussions in advance with a team of pro-settlement ministers hostile to Palestinian statehood, and when she finally gets the OK to have a meeting, she has to take along a minder, Netanyahu’s attorney and special envoy Yitzhak Molcho.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is sticking to his demands for a total construction freeze and a release of prisoners and has repeated threats to take Israel to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if it continues to expand settlement activity.
In his first term, the president had a greater interest in the peace process than his secretary of state; the roles appear reversed this time. Kerry has long had much greater interest in the subject than Hillary Clinton, and he plans to stop by regularly in coming months to revive direct talks, starting with border and security issues. Obama seems happy to let him carry the ball while the president focuses on other issues, making himself available as the deal closer should the need arise.
Obama wisely rejected a chance to address the Knesset, where right-wing extremists were threatening to stage demonstrations and walkouts to protest his appearance and his failure to deliver convicted spy Jonathan Pollard to them. Claims by some on the Right that the American president insulted the Knesset were disingenuous in light of the fact that they wanted him to come to Knesset so they could vilify him.
The president’s lack of faith in current leadership on both sides being ready for peace was evident in his choice of audiences for his major address to the Israeli people last week. He chose an audience of about 2,000 young people, mostly college students, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.
Obama took a page from Netanyahu’s playbook and scored a touchdown. In past visits to Washington, the prime minister went over the president’s head by going to Congressional Republicans who shared his desire to make Obama a one-termer and paint him as anti-Israel.
In Israel last week, Obama went over the prime minister’s head and spoke directly to the Israeli people, particularly the next generation of the nation’s leaders. His speech was widely praised as eloquent and inspirational, and the Yediot Aharonot newspaper said he was interrupted by applause 82 times, including when he urged his young audience to “put yourself in [the Palestinians’] shoes – look at the world through their eyes.”
“Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see,” he told them.
He got a standing ovation when he said, in Hebrew and English, “you are not alone.”
Obama’s audience also had a message for the calcified Palestinian politicians: We are ready for peace if you are.
The response of the young people at the convention center sent a strong message of their desire for peace to Israel’s paralyzed political establishment that it is woefully out of touch with the next generation of voters and leaders. They want to see more housing construction inside the 1967 borders, not in the West Bank. They also support the two-state solution, but unless they mobilize to pressure their government for real change, and the window of opportunity could slam shut.
Obama made an eloquent and persuasive case for peace and indications are he dramatically turned public opinion in his favor after four years of presidential missteps and hammering by his foes, repaired his relations with Netanyahu and brokered Israeli-Turkish reconciliation. That means his voice will get a more receptive hearing in Israel in the future, after being drowned out over four years by the rejectionists.
Every president who has tried to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian dispute has failed and there is no reason to believe that Obama, with leaders on both sides unwilling and incapable, can succeed.
But it may be possible to at least get them talking to each other again, and that will be Kerry’s job. With more than 20 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, most recently as its chairman, he has the experience and desire, but will he have the cooperation of the two governments?
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