Kerry′s quixotic efforts in the Middle East | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 27.06.2013
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World

Kerry's quixotic efforts in the Middle East

John Kerry has a lot of plans. The US Secretary of State wants to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table - to make peace. Critics say it is a nearly impossible mission.

John Kerry is a fighter. In the Vietnam War, he commanded a US patrol craft. He still today has shrapnel in his leg from the explosion of a bazooka. After his return to the US, Kerry fought against the Vietnam War. That was more than 40 years ago.

Since becoming Secretary of State this year, one of Kerry's major goals has been to finally negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He's touring the Middle East for the fifth time already since he assumed office. On Thursday, June 27 he will also be visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

The first planned milestone of his peace efforts: Palestinians and Israelis are supposed to finally sit down at the same table again. The direct talks between the conflicting parties have been put on hold since September 2010.

"We believe that these negotiations should begin as quickly as possible," Kerry said. "At the end there should be two states which live in peace and security with each other."

Stone-throwing Palestinian protesters stand next to a burning tyre during clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron April 3, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The West Bank is repeatedly rocked by unrest between Palestinians and Israeli military forces

Optimists believe that the very fact that Kerry is traveling through the Middle East again is a good sign. Kerry would only do this if he felt he could make progress, a Secretary of State spokeswoman said earlier this week. Pessimists, on the other hand, consider Kerry to be naive and have declared his efforts from the outset to be doomed to failure. The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz has already dubbed Kerry "The Don Quixote of the Middle East."

Unwilling to budge

But Kerry is not tilting at windmills like the famous literary character. Rather, he is fighting against the unwillingness of the conflicting parties to budge. In the past three years, Palestinians and Israelis have mutually blocked any progress.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas imposed conditions for resuming talks. His demand: an immediate freeze to building new settlements in the occupied territories, as well as recognition of the borders from 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Under international law, these demands are correct. The settlements in these areas are illegal. Israel should actually vacate the affected areas and return them to the Palestinians.

An Israeli soldier stands in a cement trench as he guards the 'outpost' Jewish settlement of Itamar in the northern West Bank, on 07 August 2011. EPA/ABIR SULTAN

The Israeli settlement in Itamar in the West Bank is one of many bones of contention

Politically, however, recognition of the 1967 borders in particular is the least feasible. Over the past years, Israeli activity has turned the West Bank into a patchwork of settlements. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers live there meanwhile. It's hardly conceivable that Israel would forgo these settlements. But precisely such a move would mean recognition of the 1967 borders. Abbas' maximum demand is therefore one of the most significant hurdles for new talks.

But Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hardly budged in past few years either. He has continuously ruled out the complete freeze in settlement building which Abbas has demanded. Instead, Netanyahu has pressed on with construction in the occupied territories, as did his predecessor. The prime minister has repeatedly objected to any pre-conditions to peace talks, such as the recognition of the 1967 borders.

The dream of a two-state solution

Any movement appears to be stalled. Nonetheless, there is still the possibility that Palestinians and Israelis will give in to US pressure to enter new direct talks, said Gad Lior, head of the Jerusalem bureau of the newspaper Yedioth Achronoth. These would however take place "on a very low level" for starters, he said.

Political analyst Hanan Crystal said Netanyahu would be able to push through the resumption of talks with the Palestinians.

"The real showdown would come when it's time to make concrete decisions, for example the complete freeze of settlement building," Crystal said.

Supporters of Naftali Bennett, head of the Israeli hard-line national religious party, Jewish Home, celebrate after exit polls were announced on January 22, 2013 at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv (Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Naftali Bennett has many supporters for his radical stance on annexing the West Bank

"Israelis want peace," journalist Lior said. The latest polls show that two-thirds of the population support a two-state solution. This was the only realistic option, he said. Otherwise, the Palestinians would make up the majority of Israel's population in the next 10 to 20 years. And then Israel would no longer be a Jewish nation.

The power of the religious bloc

Netanyahu also officially advocates an independent Palestinian state which lives in peaceful coexistence with Israel. But he's struggling to get majority support for this stance in his coalition government.

Economics minister Naftali Bennett from the nationalist party Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) has declared the two-state solution dead. At the same time, Bennett has demanded that Israel annex large parts of the West Bank. A Palestinian state would only lead to new bloodshed, he said.

"Do I really want my home to be merely 10 minutes away from a Palestinian state armed with rockets?" Bennett said. In Netanyahu's own party, the Likud, there is also major opposition to the two-state solution.

To add to the problems, there is also Hamas, which is hostile to Abbas. The radical Palestinians of Hamas rule the Gaza Strip and are as inflexible as the right-wing Israelis. They also oppose the two-state solution - Hamas wants all of the Palestinian Territories.

This leaves Kerry with a lot of ground to cover in his negotiation attempts. But in view of the long lasting deadlock, it can almost be termed a success if someone attempts to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians. His new nickname will surely not bother him.

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