WASHINGTON — Months of personal diplomacy and cajoling by Secretary of State John F. Kerry finally showed signs of success Friday when he announced that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have tentatively agreed to resume direct peace talks for the first time in three years.
Speaking to reporters in Jordan after meeting Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, Kerry announced that discussions on how to proceed with talks would begin as early as next week in Washington. He said he plans to prod both sides to take on “final status” issues such as borders, the fate of Palestinian prisoners, and illegal Israeli settlements that have stymied the establishment of two states.
The announcement is just the first step in a process that in the past has been derailed by distrust, festering disagreements, and divisions within the Israeli government and between groups representing Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the announcement, which came on Kerry’s sixth trip to the region since March, marked a victory both for him and for President Obama, who granted the former Massachusetts senator a wide berth to try to achieve something that many Middle East specialists considered almost beyond reach: a framework, however fragile, for peace.
Kerry has faced some criticism that his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was misplaced, at a time when neighboring Egypt is engulfed in strife and Syrians are waging a civil war. But, in his view, it remains at least as important as the region’s other problems.
“We have reached an agreement that establishes the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Kerry said Friday. “This is a significant and welcome step forward.”
He noted that the mechanics of the discussions are “still in the process of being formalized.”
The tentative agreement came after a late-night call from President Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, in which he encouraged the Israeli leader “to continue to work with Secretary Kerry to resume negotiations with the Palestinians as soon as possible,” according to a statement from the White House.
Earlier in the week, the League of Arab States publically called for the parties to accept Kerry’s proposal. That put pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the table. Key intermediary roles, meanwhile, were played by Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, Kerry said.
The initial talks will include chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat; Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Netanyahu’s special envoy, Isaac Molho.
The news was received with a mix of hope, but also caution, given the many obstacles that remain to achieving a lasting peace between two peoples that have resorted to violence numerous times since the Jewish state was established in 1948 and Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
“Kerry gets credit, especially because of all the disbelief,” said Jeremy Pressman, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut who specializes in the Middle East. “A lot of people thought Kerry couldn’t even get a process started.”
“But don’t dust off your champagne bottles,” Pressman added. “We are still far from any resolution. There a lot of unknowns. It is not clear what substantive issues they have agreed upon. Maybe none.”
Indeed, any jubilation at the announcement of new talks was quickly dampened by some in the region who have considered US-sponsored peace talks in the past to be unfairly weighted in favor of Israel.
“These negotiations will only lead to more Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, less freedom for Palestinians, and the continued isolation of the Gaza Strip,” warned Diana Buttu, a former aide to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. “If President Obama and Secretary Kerry are truly serious about ending Israel’s rule over the Palestinians they would begin by sanctioning Israel’s illegal behavior rather than demanding that Palestinians negotiate their way out of it.”
In Washington, however, Kerry was lauded for his efforts by a broad spectrum of observers.
“He has succeeded in placing the two-state solution back on the agenda,” the Israel Policy Forum, a nonpartisan organization in New York, said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is another indication that Secretary Kerry has established important building blocks that offer hope that negotiations will be serious.”
The group pointed out, for example, that as Kerry was inching the sides closer together, Israel quietly limited new settlement construction.
Even the gloomiest observers said Kerry’s involvement has made a huge difference.
“It is clearly a significant achievement for Kerry. He invested a lot of personal energy in this,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst at the Department of the Treasury who is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But let’s be clear about what this is. It is an agreement to come together to seek an agreement. There are very large gaps that could take quite some time to bridge.”
Still, Schanzer said, “this approach is a far better one than the one Mr. Obama took in the first term.”
After he was sworn in, Obama invited both leaders to Washington and declared that a final peace agreement could be inked within a year. But the effort sputtered.
Earlier Friday there were predictions that Kerry’s months of shuttle diplomacy would also collapse. Then a hastily organized stop by Kerry in the West Bank city of Ramallah salvaged the momentum.
State Department officials have insisted that the recent military coup in Egypt, Syria’s grinding civil war, and the continuing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran make settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more important.
Leaders in Israel’s military establishment, for one, are seeking stability in a region turned upside down, with no lack of potential enemies. At the same time, if there is anything that Israel and the Palestinian leaders in the West Bank share, it is a common antipathy for the militant anti-Israel Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza.
Schanzer said that the turmoil in the region has weakened Hamas, which has received substantial support from Syria and Iran, as well as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was deposed earlier this month by the Western-oriented Egyptian military.
“What just happened in Egypt eviscerated Hamas,” he said. “Its political protectors are no longer there and the [Egyptian] Army is shutting down the tunnels” that supply arms to the Gaza Strip.
“One of the inducements Mr. Kerry has [in the new peace talks] is the further weakening of Hamas,” Schanzer said. ”Whether Kerry is capitalizing on this is unclear.”