Evoking the U.S. shuttle diplomacy of decades past, Secretary of State John Kerry is making his third trip to the Middle East in a span of just two weeks in a fresh bid to restart long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Though expectations are low for any breakthrough on Kerry's trip, which begins Saturday, his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders represent some of the Obama administration's most sustained efforts at engagement in a part of the world that has frustrated American administrations for the past six decades.
"His diplomacy will be based on what he hears from the parties," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. Kerry, she said, will be making clear that both sides have to want to get back to the negotiating table "and that they've also got to recognize— both parties — that compromises and sacrifices are going to have to be made if we're going to be able to help."
Kerry is going at a precarious time. Overnight and into Wednesday, Israel and Gaza militants engaged in the heaviest fighting since a cease-fire was declared in November. The militants fired several rockets into southern Israel, and Israel responded with its first airstrike in Gaza since the fighting subsided. No injuries were reported on either side.
Kerry had planned to leave Monday for talks in London and then South Korea, China and Japan. But officials said he moved up his departure to Saturday for a first stop in Turkey, where he'll seek to build on recent efforts by that nation and Israel to repair ties and coordinate on stemming violence in Syria. Kerry then travels to Jerusalem and to Ramallah in the West Bank, which he visited with Obama last month before returning to Israel a second time.
U.S. officials say Kerry is primarily interested in gauging what the Israelis and the Palestinians are willing to do to restart direct negotiations that have been mostly frozen for the past 4 ½ years. He'll meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Trying to avoid raising expectations unrealistically, Nuland said Kerry's trip isn't the start of a new era of shuttle diplomacy, a concept that got its start with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during his regular travels back-and-forth to end the 1973 Mideast War and secure peace between Israel and some of its neighbors. Similar efforts took place under later secretaries James A. Baker III, Warren Christopher and Condoleezza Rice.
But it undeniably marks a shift after President Barack Obama largely kept the Arab-Israeli conflict at arm's length during his first term. Despite publicly challenging Israel to halt settlement construction in disputed territory and becoming the first U.S. president to publicly endorse Israel's pre-1967 borders as the basis of a two-state solution, Obama and Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, presented no grand peace plan and failed to produce any sustained, high-level diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Clinton avoided Israel and the Palestinian territories for nearly two years at one point, and only open war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip last November prompted frantic U.S. diplomatic action.
The last significant peace negotiations occurred when President George W. Bush brought leaders to Annapolis, Md., with the goal of a treaty by the end of 2008. After a 2-year hiatus, talks that began under the Obama administration's guidance in 2010 quickly fizzled out.
Hopes for quick progress still seem bleak. Israel's new government, with a large hardliner contingent, has shown no sign of giving ground to the Palestinians on sensitive issues such as Jewish settlements in contested lands, future borders or the question of Jerusalem — which both sides claim for a capital. Power among the Palestinians, meanwhile, is split between those who demand tough Israeli concessions before talks can occur and those who simply reject the notion of negotiations.
"Neither Abu Mazen nor Netanyahu is a candidate for an end to the conflict," said Yossi Alpher, who advised former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. Kerry, he said, should seek merely "some kind of partial solution."
Looking for an elusive path back to negotiations, U.S. officials said the Obama administration is exploring security guarantees for the Jordan Valley, a section of the West Bank that stretches along the border with Jordan.
Israel has long demanded the guarantees as part of any treaty establishing an independent Palestine, though the issue has been overshadowed by more sensitive matters.
Although Palestinians have a measure of self-rule in other areas, the Jordan Valley is part of the 60 percent of the West Bank still under full Israeli control nearly two decades after interim peace accords granted the Palestinians autonomy elsewhere.
Netanyahu has said he wants Israel to maintain some sort of security presence in the valley as part of any agreement. Israel fears an independent Palestine without a sufficient international or Israeli presence could lead to a buildup of military equipment and extremists along whatever becomes the final boundary — and lead to more conflict.
One idea floated in the past included joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols of the mostly desert area home to some 60,000 Palestinians.
The strategy during Kerry's visit, according to U.S. officials, is to leverage movement by Abbas on security guarantees into possible concessions from Netanyahu on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and which the Palestinians hope to include in their future state. More than 500,000 Israelis now live in the territories.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations. It's unclear what kind of reception such a proposal would get from the Palestinians, who've insisted on a complete freeze in Israeli settlements for negotiations to begin anew.
"We are still at the 'let's see what's possible' stage," Nuland told reporters. "The secretary is committed to using his strong relationships with both leaders to encourage them to be open, to be creative, to be prepared for compromises and to work hard to build trust between them, to increase confidence and to create that environment where we're able to help them."
She added, in not especially optimistic terms: "We'll see what is possible, but it's really too early to know."
The Palestinians have big expectations for Kerry's diplomacy, which is likely to persist in an intensive manner over the next several weeks.
The big goals center on seeing settlement construction halted and Israel's 1967 boundaries agreed to as the baseline for a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has never outlined his vision for how Israel and Palestine should be separated, but he rejects a return to the 1967 lines and says talks should resume without preconditions.
Smaller confidence-building measures may be possible at this stage. The Palestinians also are looking for Israel to free some 120 prisoners held since before the interim peace accords were signed in 1993. And Abbas has said he'd meet Netanyahu if there is a prisoner release, although not for formal negotiations.
"The key to success for the efforts to re-launch the peace process is Israel's implementation of its commitments, especially stopping settlement activities, releasing prisoners and accepting the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
Kerry may have an easier time cementing the diplomatic progress Obama brokered between Turkey and Israel during the president's trip to the region two weeks ago.
The two countries were once strong allies, but their relations spiraled downward after Israel's 2010 raid on a Turkish flotilla bound for Gaza. Eight Turks and one Turkish-American died.
Turkey had demanded an apology as a condition for restoring ties. Netanyahu refused until Obama arranged a telephone call between the Israeli leader and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, however, is still holding up full normalization of relations until a compensation agreement is worked out Israel significantly loosens its Gaza blockade.
Kerry will "have an opportunity to spur both sides to continue to take steps to deepen their normalization and to work well together," the State Department's Nuland said. "We need to now see further steps on both sides."
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