WASHINGTON – With Mideast peace talks on the verge of collapse, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared Friday that it’s reality check time on whether an agreement can be reached anytime soon after decades of bitterness between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The U.S. will re-evaluate its role as mediator, he said.
It was Kerry’s most pessimistic take yet on the peace effort after nearly nine months of frustrating talks with little progress to show.
Kerry made clear that his push for peace is not yet over, and he said both sides claim to want to continue negotiating. But he also said tit-for-tat moves by Israeli and Palestinian officials that have upended good-faith bargaining could force the U.S. to shift focus to other crises.
We have an enormous amount on the plate, Kerry told reporters during a diplomatic visit to Rabat, Morocco, the end of a marathon trip that saw him jumping back and forth between Israel, Ramallah and Europe. He noted that the U.S. is also dealing with challenges in Ukraine, Iran and Syria.
There are limits to the amount of time and effort the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward.
The nine months of talks are scheduled to end April 29, and Kerry has been pressing to have them continue through the rest of the year.
But we’re not going to sit here indefinitely, he said.
Kerry has spent major portions of his 14 months as secretary of state pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement despite the seemingly long odds. A collapse of the talks could be a diplomatic embarrassment for him and the administration – and a danger in the region as well.
Failed efforts in the past have led to major bouts of violence. On Friday, Palestinians fired rockets at Israel, which responded with warplanes attacking military targets in the Gaza Strip.
Uzi Rabi, director of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said it’s doubtful the two sides will broker a final peace agreement, given years of bitterness and sharp differences over borders, claims to Jerusalem and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
But he said the talks should continue – if only to ward off a new Palestinian uprising against Israelis that would surely lead to a surge in violence.
I think the Americans know that the talks ultimately will fail, Rabi said. So why are they going on? Because it’s much better to talk than something which is much more problematic, like intifada.
Intifada is the Arabic term for past Palestinian uprisings against Israel. The last one began in 2000, and more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in several years of fighting.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed hope Friday the talks would continue. But, he said, Palestinian leaders do not feel bound to follow Kerry’s ground rules for negotiating if Israel fails to live up to its own commitments.
Last weekend, Israel refused to release a group of Palestinian prisoners it had said last summer it would free as part of the agreement to resume talks that had been stalled since 2011.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas retaliated by signing 15 United Nations treaties and conventions to give Palestinians greater international recognition – a step his side initially pledged not to take while the peace talks were continuing.