Skip to main content

John Kerry defies the odds with intense drive for Middle East peace

By Tim Lister, CNN
updated 10:53 AM EST, Tue January 7, 2014
John Kerry had made 10 trips to the Middle East in the past year to try to win an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
John Kerry had made 10 trips to the Middle East in the past year to try to win an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Through intensive diplomacy the U.S. Secretary of State is trying to build momentum in Middle East peace talks
  • Borders and Jewish settlements are likely to be the most difficult piece of Kerry's puzzle
  • Some within Israel's coalition government want to annex Jewish settlements in the fertile Jordan Valley

(CNN) -- No-one can fault U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for lack of effort. He has just wrapped up his 10th visit to the Middle East in pursuit of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority -- the most elusive prize in international diplomacy.

Kerry has a vision, according to U.S. diplomats -- to climb the mountain with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and to peer down from the summit on the valley of peace to see what a two-state solution would look like.

It is a poetic metaphor, but more than half-way into the nine-month timetable for reaching a framework agreement, Kerry's partners are still bickering in the foothills. The more pessimistic observers -- with history on their side -- say both the Israelis and Palestinians are positioning themselves to be able to blame the other for failure.

Kerry's aim is to gather together all the issues -- "borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition, and the end of conflict and of all claims" -- in this framework agreement, which would in his words "lay out the end-game," the parameters for a final peace settlement. The U..S and its partners would then help the two parties hammer out the details.

Kerry himself has acknowledged how difficult the climb would be -- choosing another metaphor while shuttling through the region last week.

Released prisoner starts new life
Israel's separation barrier

"In the end all of these core issues fit together like a mosaic, like a puzzle and you can't separate out one piece or another," he said.

"The last pieces may decide to fall into place, or may fall on the floor, and leave the puzzle unfinished."

Kerry dropped hints about progress last week, saying after meeting Abbas that talks had "fleshed out and even resolved" certain kinds of issues. U.S. envoy Martin Indyk will stay in the region to follow up on last week's talks and the secretary himself will likely return within weeks.

But at the same time, both parties are busy blaming the other for obstructing the process.

Netanyahu, with Kerry at his side, accused the Palestinian Authority of continuing "unabated incitement against the State of Israel" over the past six months.

"A few days ago in Ramallah, President Abbas embraced terrorists as heroes," he said, referring to the welcome given to Palestinian prisoners released by Israel.

Borders and Jewish settlements are likely to be the most difficult piece of Kerry's puzzle. The Israeli government is expected to announce plans in the next few days for building 1,400 new homes in the West Bank, a move guaranteed to infuriate the Palestinians.

A senior U.S. State Department official said last week that "the settlement activity that has been going on has created a lot of questions on the Palestinian side and in the international community about the intentions of the Government of Israel."

Nearly half-a-million Jews now live in settlements in occupied territory, and Israeli sources maintain that the largest -- such as those in Hebron and Beit El -- would not be surrendered on any settlement.

President Obama laid out Washington's principles two years ago, saying that "the Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state." That state should be based on the 1967 land boundaries -- before Israel seized east Jerusalem and the West Bank -- plus swaps to take account of developments since.

Netanyahu shot back that a return to such borders would imperil Israel's security.

"Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide, half the width of the Washington beltway," he said while meeting Obama.

Many Israeli officials insist that today -- in the face of growing instability in the region and a resurgence of militant Islamist groups -- the Jewish state must maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley as the only way to defend the country's eastern border, providing some strategic depth. And that presence, they maintain, could only be sustained by a secure road cutting through the heart of the West Bank.

Some within Israel's coalition government even want to annex Jewish settlements in the fertile Jordan Valley, potentially the bread-basket of a new Palestinian state, and home to nearly 30% of Palestinians living in the West Bank. The proposal is unlikely to go anywhere, but demonstrates the internal difficulties that face Netanyahu in any push toward a final settlement.

Whatever is going on behind closed doors, Israel and the Palestinians seem in public no closer to compromise on other core issues. Both continue to claim Jerusalem as their capital. The Palestinians reject outright Netanyahu's demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, fearing that to do so would disenfranchise 1.5 million Israeli Arabs. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says he has an answer for that -- move the border so that the main concentrations of Israeli Arabs will live within a Palestinian state.

In Kerry's favor is a recognition among many Israelis that the current environment may offer the best opportunity to strike a deal, with much of the Arab world in disarray and long-term population trends threatening to leave the Jews a minority in their own homeland.

Lieberman himself said on Friday that Kerry's framework was the best Israel could expect and "any other proposal from the international community won't be as good." Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert chimed in, saying "there's nothing that will change our lives so substantially, nothing that could negatively impact our lives, more than the existence or absence of a peace agreement between us and Palestinians as soon as possible."

And in an editorial, the Israeli daily Haaretz said Netanyahu -- and Israel -- could not afford to be seen as the spoiler.

"An Israeli refusal would put Israel on the South African track, banishing it to the punishment corner, a disgrace to the family of nations. An Israeli refusal would endanger its intimate alliance with the United States, on which its national security and economic wellbeing are based. An Israeli refusal would play into the Iranians' hands," Haaretz wrote.

Kerry seemed to hint at this dilemma when he said: "The time is soon arriving where leaders are going to have to make difficult decisions."

Through intensive diplomacy the U.S. Secretary of State is trying to build momentum and to get both Netanyahu and Abbas to make a leap of faith despite the skepticism and outright opposition they both face at home. By phone, in person, through his support team, Kerry is not giving either party a moment to drift backwards.

The self-imposed timetable calls for a framework agreement to be reached by April. Publicly, that remains the target. But one senior State Department official says with masterly understatement: "From my 35-year experience on this particular conflict and the efforts to resolve it, it always takes longer than you think."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
This looks like a ghost ship, but it's actually the site of a tense international standoff between the Philippines and China.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
The reported firing of artillery from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle, says CNN's military analyst Rick Francona.
updated 4:46 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
The young boy stops, stares, throws ammunition casings at the reporter's feet without a word.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
A picture taken on June 28, 2014 shows a member of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) putting on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated. The World Health Organization has warned that Ebola could spread beyond hard-hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to neighbouring nations, but insisted that travel bans were not the answer.
The worst ebola outbreak in history spreads out of control in West Africa. CNN's Michael Holmes reports.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Sure, Fido is a brown Lab. But inside, he may also be a little green.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
ITN's Dan Rivers reports from the hospital where those injured by an attack in Gaza were being treated.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Photograph of an undisclosed location by Patrycja Makowska
Patrycja Makowska likes to give enigmatic names to the extraordinarily beautiful photographs she shoots of crumbling palaces.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
When the Costa Concordia and its salvage convoy finally depart Giglio, the residents will breathe a sigh of relief -- and shed a tear.
updated 2:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Flight attendants are wearing black ribbons to show solidarity with fallen colleagues in "a tribute to those who never made it home."
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT