The US has hinted at a "pause" in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, after Israel's rejection of the Hamas-Fatah unity deal. But US Middle East expert Richard LeBaron says the US remains committed to the peace process.
Israel on Thursday suspended US-led peace talks with the Palestinians after Fatah announced a unity pact with the rival Islamist Hamas group, which Israel and the US consider a terrorist organization that has repeatedly denied Israel the right to exist.
Deutsche Welle: The talks have been suspended for now - was this the final nail in the coffin for the already stalled talks?
Richard LeBaron: I don't think so. It makes for better headlines to say the peace process is dead. Both sides have left open the possibility of returning to the table, certainly in the Israeli statement, they didn't rule that out. And the Palestinians don't have any interest in a permanent break in the negotiations either.
US President Barack Obama has hinted at a "pause" in negotiations…
There will have to be a break of some sort, but I don't sense that they'll stop working behind the scenes. This has been a very quiet approach that [US Secretary of State John] Kerry has taken with his team in the region, I don't sense that they will stop talking to the two sides. But there will be a tactical pause here… But the US will have to stay engaged, and I don't think we should be discouraged.
For now, will the US leave it up to the two sides to find a way to move on or is it still fully invested in the peace process?
What some people forget in this equation is that we don't do this just because we're able to talk to the two sides. The United States has an interest, as does the rest of the world, in seeing peace in the Middle East. It's not just about Palestinians and Israelis - they need to recognize that there are interests here that are broader than their parochial interests.
So, you don't believe the US is weary of the Middle East peace process?
We've been weary of it for years and that's part of the problem, we need to get this off the books. The ways to solve this are not horribly difficult, but they require leadership and tough decisions by the two parties involved.
And that leadership is lacking, in your view?
It's clear that the international leadership - the US included - would support those decisions, but it's not so clear that either side has adequate leadership to really make hard decisions. They are searching for all kinds of detours to stall the negotiating process, because they are basically stalling tough political decisions.
Frankly, we've known for years what an agreement might look like, so it's not a substantive issue, it's a matter of political will.
Doesn't the US have bigger fish to fry at the moment?
We have a lot of important issues to pursue, but I do think we can pursue this simultaneously.
Do you agree with the US strategy in the region at the moment?
I think the US has been right to focus on the fundamental, final-status issues. We have to stay focused on those and not be drawn into blind alleys - we were almost drawn into one with the release of Jonathan Pollard [an American Jew convicted of spying for Israel - the ed.] and so forth.
These are all side issues that are used by the parties to distract from the main ones. One of the important role we have now, is to keep the parties focused on the real issues.
Do you think John Kerry has done a good job mediating in this conflict?
I think so, considering the obstacles he's faced. He has done it without much fanfare, and very few leaks from the American side. This is a serious attempt and I think he should not be discouraged.
Does the US want the EU to take a greater role in the peace process?
I don't foresee this and I don't see the EU diving into this either. The US may be taking a sort of less high-level and less public role, but I'm not sure we have backed away from the process.
So, the peace process in the Middle East is still a US priority?
There are two fundamental interests in the Middle East. The [US] President indicated those in his UN speech last fall - they were the Iran negotiations and the Palestinian-Israeli issue and I think that's still the focus.
You worked in Israel, with the US embassy - from your point-of-view - is there an acceptance for a two-state solution there?
There is an acceptance, but Israelis, for good reasons, are very wary, they have to live with it.
I was there during the second Intifadah, and those sorts of experiences can be searing and make people very suspicious. And the level of suspicion has gone up, there's not a huge amount of enthusiasm about a two-state solution, but there is the ability still, in Israel, to show leadership and lead Israel into such a solution.
Richard LeBaron is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank. He served in various US embassies in the Middle East, including in Tel Aviv, and worked on the peace process for the US government.