WASHINGTON — The State Department unexpectedly spent Friday deflecting criticism that Secretary of State John F. Kerry took an ill-timed Nantucket vacation as violence erupted in Egypt, but aides said his presence in the Middle East is still being felt in what has become for him another home away from home: The Yitzhak Rabin Suite of the David Citadel Hotel, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.
Kerry has been calling and e-mailing instructions to a team of negotiators he left behind in Israel last week in a special wing named for the slain Israeli peacemaker to continue pressing for a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process, according to US officials directly monitoring the behind-the-scenes diplomatic push.
In six months, Kerry has spent more time meeting with Israelis and Palestinians in the region than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, did in her entire tenure — four trips since March, with a fifth as early as next week. Leaders on both sides of the standoff have said Kerry is close to bringing them back to the negotiating table for the first time since 2008.
But Kerry’s ability to keep up the momentum is threatened from multiple quarters. The overthrow of the elected president by the military in Egypt earlier this week could once again change the dynamics of Middle East negotiations. Egypt was the first Arab nation to agree to full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state and remains a critical power in the region.
Meanwhile, the Kerry camp was sidetracked by a self-inflicted wound after a State Department spokeswoman initially denied that Kerry had been on a yacht in Nantucket while Egypt was undergoing its latest revolution. The spokeswoman on Friday retracted her denial, which led to the image of Kerry on his yacht getting even more attention. The criticism came from predictably partisan quarters, but still it was a distraction at a critical time.
‘While he was briefly on his boat on Wednesday, Secretary Kerry worked around the clock all day.’ — Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for John Kerry, who initially denied the secretary of state had been on his yacht in Nantucket while Egypt’s leader was ousted by the military
But even with events large and small sapping attention from his effort, observers said they should not overshadow Kerry’s focus on what is still for him a diplomatic priority in the region, bringing Israeli and Palestinians to the bargaining table.
“Israel has gone some distance,” said Ambassador Zalman Shoval, a two-time former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is now a special envoy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu has gone out on a limb on the issue of two states that has caused problems in his coalition. He wouldn’t have done that unless he really wanted to give Kerry a chance to move things forward. Kerry will probably come back in a week or two and put more pressure on the Palestinians.”
Kerry has kept up a whirlwind pace since becoming secretary of state in January, logging nine extended overseas trips.
His efforts to make headway in the Middle East peace process include 15 meetings and public events in Israel; eight in the Palestinian territories; and two meetings in Washington with the chief Israeli negotiator.
A key player has been Kerry’s close aide and confidant, Frank Lowenstein, a former Senate aide and adviser on his failed 2004 presidential bid who was reenlisted earlier this year to spearhead the peace effort.
He is the son of the late Representative Allard Lowenstein of New York, an early mentor when Kerry returned from the Vietnam War to become a leader of the anti-war movement.
Frank Lowenstein, along with several other aides, remained behind in the Jerusalem hotel where Kerry has recently hosted multiple high-level meetings, fielding a steady stream of advice and instructions from the secretary of state even as his office responds to criticism of his working vacation on Nantucket.
The Nantucket kerfuffle occurred after Kerry’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, on Wednesday denied a CBS News report on Twitter that Kerry had been seen boarding his yacht, Isabel, just hours after Egypt’s first democratically elected leader was overthrown.
“Any report or tweet that he was on a boat is completely inaccurate,” she said Wednesday.
As pictures confirming Kerry’s presence on the yacht were widely distributed, Psaki retracted her denial.
“While he was briefly on his boat on Wednesday, Secretary Kerry worked around the clock all day including participating in the president’s meeting with his National Security Council,” she said.
A Kerry aide who was not authorized to speak publicly said the denial on Wednesday was the result of “confusion,” saying Kerry apparently had taken his grandson for an hourlong sail. Fair or not, the focus on Kerry’s leisure activities revived memories of the image of him windsurfing during his failed 2004 presidential bid, which was publicized in a Republican campaign ad to portray him as someone who would change with the winds.
But Kerry aides said this week’s incident will blow over. They believe the former Massachusetts senator can succeed in the Mideast peace process where others have failed because he brings a unique blend of knowledge of the issues, personal relationships with the key players, and a knack for negotiation.
“It’s working because they trust him,” said a senior State Department official who is privy to the talks but not authorized to speak publicly due to the sensitive nature of the discussions. “It is his ability to persuade the parties that this is in their best interest.”
But the path ahead has many obstacles. Members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have deep misgivings about any peace overtures to the Palestinians — especially if it means halting the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank — while the Palestinian Authority is perceived as in a weakened position with the militant Hamas in control in the Gaza Strip.
While the Israelis have said they would be open to discussing all remaining disputes in resumed talks, the Palestinians are holding out for Israeli commitments to freeze settlements and the release of Palestinian prisoners before returning to the negotiating table.
Kerry’s marathon push comes amid signs of dwindling hopes among both the Israeli and Palestinian public that a viable path forward is available.
A poll conducted by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week concluded that 27 percent of Palestinians believe peace talks will resume, while a mere 10 percent of Israelis share that view.
The situation in Egypt and a grinding civil war in Syria are also seen by some as more pressing challenges. It is unclear when or if Kerry will travel to meet with the newly installed interim Egyptian leader. But it is clear the country will require more of his diplomatic energies.
Kerry is expected to cite the turmoil as all the more reason to settle the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians.
“This is an area where his application of time and energy can make a difference,” said the State Department official. “It will have a tremendous impact on the wider region if we can get these parties back to the table.”
The opposing sides have suggested that Kerry has played an indispensable role in orchestrating a potential breakthrough. After a three-day sprint of meetings in the region last week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas credited Kerry with “useful and constructive suggestions” and said Palestinians are optimistic because Kerry has shown he is “serious and determined to reach a solution.”
Netanyahu, speaking at a July 4 reception at the US ambassador’s home, credited Kerry “for his tireless efforts to advance peace. When I say tireless, I mean just that. That man works until 3 o’clock in the morning. We all do. But then he goes on to a 45-minute stroll in Jerusalem. I think I’ll join him next time.”