US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 28, 2013. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)
John Kerry, secretary of state, is headed back to the Middle East again—not to Egypt, where the post-coup crisis is brewing, nor to discuss Syria especially, where there’s a civil war going on, but once again in pursuit of the elusive, Israel-Palestinian peace process.
It’s his sixth visit in just six months on the job. It’s always a safe bet to plunk down your chips on the gamble that the peace process is going nowhere, but let’s watch this week’s events carefully. You’d have to think that either Kerry is crazy—a not unreasonable assumption, if it’s true that he advocated bombing Syrian airfields and runways—or that he genuinely believes that he’s getting somewhere.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared on CBS on Sunday, is ever trying to change the subject from Palestine to Iran, Egypt, Syria, anything else, and in yesterday’s telecast he had help from Bob Schieffer, who completely failed to ask a single question about peace talks. Back in 2009, Netanyahu did the same thing, when he first met with President Obama, saying “Iran, Iran, Iran” when Obama was saying “Palestine, Palestine.” By and large, Netanyahu succeeded in changing the subject during Obama’s first term, but Kerry seems obsessively focused on Israel-Palestine, and that may be a good thing. Nevertheless, in his CBS appearance, Netanyahu was back on message. Cynically dismissing Iran’s new, moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, as someone whose policy is “smile and build a bomb,” Netanyahu urged Obama to rattle some sabers:
I think it’s very important to make clear to them that you won’t allow them to have this weapon and to demonstrate that by action. That is, you can also make clear that the nuclear option which is—the military option which is on the table is truly on the table.
And of course he stressed that Iran, and not Palestine, is the thing we all ought to worry about:
Uppermost in my mind—uppermost in my mind—uppermost in my mind is preventing the greatest terror of all. And that is that the radical Islamist regime in Iran gets the weapons of ultimate terror, nuclear weapons.
So far, the Obama administration is ignoring Netanyahu on Iran, and tomorrow the P5+1 meets to get ready for the next round of talks with Iran, presumably after Rouhani takes office officially in August. Those talks, once they start, are likely to be long and protracted, and there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that Obama will make concessions to Iran via the P5+1 in order to kickstart talks with Rouhani. Still, it’s a good sign that the United States is signaling that it’s willing to meet directly with Rouhani, and it’s a good sign that Kerry is focusing on Israel-Palestine.
Speaking of which, according to The Times of Israel, the Palestinians are meeting to discuss the next round of talks, and their position is this, says the paper:
Senior Palestinian Authority figures are set to meet Sunday evening in order to discuss the negotiations. According to reports, they plan to stick with the three main Palestinian preconditions for resuming direct talks: a cessation by Israel of all construction in the settlements, agreement on the 1967 lines as a basis for talks, and a release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.
It isn’t likely that Netanyahu will meet the Palestinians even halfway on any of that, but Kerry must be thinking something.
The last round of shuttle diplomacy, at the end of June, ended with plenty of speculation that something was cooking. He altered his schedule and spent hours going back and forth, and The New York Times reported on June 29:
Mr. Kerry’s trip had appeared to take a dramatic turn on Saturday when he ripped up his itinerary and canceled a news conference and a trip that day to the United Arab Emirates so he could continue his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for another day.
That spurred speculation in the Israeli news media that a summit meeting among Israeli, Palestinian and American officials might be hosted by Jordan.
The next day, June 30, the Times reported that Kerry was seeing progress somewhere:
After four days of the most intense Middle East peace push in years, Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Sunday without securing a public commitment that the two sides would return to the negotiating table, though he insisted that “real progress” had been made and said that a resumption of talks “could be within reach.” In what has become a familiar refrain, Mr. Kerry promised to return to the region soon.
Well, “soon” is now. He’s back. Let’s see what happens.
Henry Siegman explains why Washington's policies on Israel have already doomed the peace talks.