The Obama administration is reassessing its mediating role in the Middle East peace process after seeing little progress. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who had brokered talks, has drawn criticism for his role.
Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have hit another snag, prompting Washington to reassess whether to continue brokering talks marred by what a White House spokesman called "unhelpful actions" by both conflict parties. US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday (08.04.2014). Late last week, Kerry had stated it was time for a "reality check" - that there was a limit to US efforts if the parties themselves were unwilling to move forward, Kerry said during a visit to Morocco.
This tentative failure "has damaged Kerry's reputation because it shows that he misread the situation," said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the conservative, Washington-based Heritage Foundation. Kerry overestimated the prospects for a successful negotiation and also devoted an immense amount of time to this issue while neglecting other, more pressing topics, Phillips told DW.
Reality check for Kerry?
After eight months of shuttle diplomacy, more than a dozen trips to the region and countless rounds of evening negotiations, Kerry decided to pull the emergency brake and announced to carry out a "reality check" regarding the peace process. But first and foremost, it might turn into a reality check for Kerry himself, writes the "New York Times."
And this could be uncomfortable for Kerry, who - according to Republican Senator John McCain - chooses to ignore reality. Kerry has not just been criticized by the opposition; off the record, criticism has also been voiced by politicians in the Obama administration.
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Meanwhile, Obama publicly supported his secretary of state, saying, "I have nothing but admiration for how John [Kerry] has handled this." While that kind of backing might help him at home, it won't restore his prestige and authority abroad. Obama largely left handling the Mideast peace process to Kerry and has only tried within the last month to up pressure on Abbas and Netanyahu toward reaching an agreement.
Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress says it has been a problem that the US wasn't allowed to publicly talk about its successes along the way due to confidentiality. Contrary to Phillips, he regards Kerry's role as mainly positive.
"The way Secretary Kerry was managing this process was very good. I think the security assessment that was done by General Allen in particular was a very smart move, addressing upfront one of Israel's biggest concerns, which is the security arrangement that would come after the end of the occupation," he told DW.
That opened up a time slot for a possible agreement early this year.
According to Duss, Kerry's main failure was "that he did underestimate the lack of trust that exists between the parties right now."
Abbas' dwindling power
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been considerably weakened from the start of the talks, since he was isolated in his own government and amongst the leadership of the Palestinians. And although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed on Sunday that Israel was ready to continue talks, experts widely expressed doubts that he was serious about negotiations.
Their skepticism was indeed justified, Duss said, pointing to Israel's decision last week - contrary to prior agreement - not to release another group of Palestinian prisoners. In turn, that move pushed Abbas to sign a series of global treaties and agreements on behalf of the State of Palestine. Officially accepting such documents would be equivalent to recognizing Palestinian statehood - a prospect the US and Israel would be unlikely to accept.
According to Phillips, Kerry failed to sufficiently account for the fact that the Abbas administration doesn't rule the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas.
"And as long as Hamas is there, it can torpedo any agreement that the Palestinian authority makes overnight with another round of rocket terrorism. And that greatly reduces Israel's willingness to make concessions," he said.
Duss said Obama is wise by taking Kerry out of the line of fire for now and putting experienced diplomats on the case. That buys time to rethink their role and increases pressure on players in the region. It seems clear that Netanyahu is very concerned about the consequences of failure, Duss said.
Against 'artificial deadlines'
Israelis and Palestinians have increased the frequency of their meetings again in an attempt to save the peace talks and extend the deadline, which will expire in three weeks time. Phillips, however, warns about imposing a new deadline.
"It would be a mistake to set artificial deadlines for reaching an agreement, even on a framework agreement," he said in regards to Kerry's announcement to finalize negotiations by the end of April. "Time and time again, the US has pushed prematurely for final settlement, going back to Clinton at second Camp David, the Bush administration at Indianapolis talks, and then Obama in the first term and then Kerry in the second term," he said, adding, "I just don't think conditions on the ground are right for a peace settlement."