CASABLANCA, Morocco/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: The Obama administration will re-evaluate its role in foundering Middle East peace talks following actions by both Israel and the Palestinians that have brought the negotiations to virtual collapse, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday.
A visibly downbeat Kerry, who has spent the better part of his 14-month tenure as America’s top diplomat trying to cajole the parties into talks, stopped short of declaring the peace process dead. But in his most pessimistic assessment of the situation since talks began last summer with an end-of-April target for a deal, Kerry made clear his patience was near exhausted. He said it was time for a “reality check.”
“It is regrettable that in the last few days both sides have taken steps that are not helpful and that’s evident to everybody,” he said.
Speaking to reporters in Rabat before traveling to Casablanca for a meeting with Morocco’s king, Kerry said the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could not continue to occupy so much of his time if the Israelis and Palestinians were unable to take even minor steps toward making the negotiations successful.
“Clearly we have an enormous amount on the plate,” Kerry said. “There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unable to take constructive steps. We are going to evaluate very carefully exactly where this is and where it might possibly be able to go.”
Kerry’s comments signaled that he and his team would be taking a step back from the peace process to test Israeli and Palestinian intentions. “The leaders have to make these decisions,” Kerry said.
Kerry has been the lead player in the administration’s effort to forge a long-elusive deal to end the conflict. With little, if any, tangible signs of progress over the course of eight months of talks, the initial goal of a comprehensive deal was scaled down to an outline of what such an agreement would look like. If the talks do collapse, it would be a huge disappointment to Kerry and could be seen as a foreign policy failure for the administration.
The Obama administration even took the unprecedented step of allowing the possible release of convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for selling U.S. military secrets to Israel, to be used as an inducement to get Israel to release some Palestinian prisoners. Every president since Ronald Reagan has refused Israel’s request to release Pollard.
Over the past several weeks, the more modest goal of a framework accord was scaled down even further as Kerry and his team focused on getting the two sides to merely agree to extend the timeframe for the talks. That aim was put into serious jeopardy when Israel over the weekend refused to release a group of Palestinian prisoners they had said they would free as part of the agreement to resume the talks.
“They say they want to continue,” he said of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “But we are not going to sit there indefinitely. This is not an open-ended effort. It’s reality check time.”
After meeting Abbas last week in Jordan, Kerry flew to Israel from Paris Monday to meet with Netanyahu in a last-ditch bid to keep the talks afloat. He planned to return to the region Wednesday to see Abbas again.
But that plan was canceled when Abbas Tuesday said that in retaliation for Israel refusing to release the prisoners, the Palestinians would seek greater international recognition by signing up to 15 U.N. treaties and conventions, something they had said they would not do while the negotiations were in progress.
On Thursday, Israel officially canceled the prisoner release, throwing the entire peace process into doubt.
Some 1,500 Palestinians demonstrated Friday outside Ofer military prison near Ramallah, rallied by the families of those who were to have been freed.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Friday that the next Palestinian move depends on Israel.
“We signed 15 [conventions], but there are still 48 treaties, conventions and agencies that we have not signed yet,” he told journalists. “If the Israelis release the 30 prisoners, we are committed not to join these agencies, treaties and conventions, but if they [the Israelis] don’t, we have a free hand.”
“We don’t have anything to lose,” Erekat said, but added that the Palestinians also want to avoid a clash with the Obama administration. Erekat met earlier Friday with U.S. mediator Martin Indyk.