Even as Israeli negotiators flew to Washington for discussions with Kerry on Monday about a framework agreement with the Palestinians that could enable talks to go on, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom warned in a radio interview that any attempt to impose such a document on Israel would scuttle the negotiations.
At a meeting with foreign correspondents last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at what he called the “hypocrisy” of European Union countries who’d summoned Israeli ambassadors to protest new Israeli settlement-building plans in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a move seen internationally as a blow to the negotiations. Netanyahu said the complaints were misdirected and should have been aimed at what he called Palestinian incitement against Israel.
The cumulative impact of Kerry’s repeated journeys here – he’s made 10 trips to the region since March – bubbled to the surface last week, when Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, was quoted as saying the secretary was driven by “incomprehensible obsession and a messianic sense” and that “the only thing that can save us is that he will win the Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”
Yaalon dismissed an American security plan for an Israeli-Palestinian accord as “not worth the paper it was written on.”
The remarks, reported to have been said in closed meetings, were published on the front page of the mass circulation daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. They drew an unusually sharp response from the Obama administration, which called them “offensive and inappropriate.” Yaalon later apologized.
But his comments reflected the unease Kerry’s efforts have caused among hawks in the Israeli government, who fear that Netanyahu might make concessions under the sustained American pressure. The prime minister, however, has shown no indication that he’s likely to do so.
Some analysts said Israeli officials were puzzled by the energy expended on the effort after many years in which the United States had adopted a hands-off approach to what appeared to be unbridgeable gaps between the sides.
“They don’t understand why Secretary Kerry is putting this kind of focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when both sides could have told him that there was little chance for a breakthrough, and when the region around us is on fire,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. “For Yaalon, this approach simply seems bizarre in the extreme, and he represents a sense you will hear in private rooms from all sorts of people.”
Yaalon’s remarks about Kerry were “not just his opinion,” said Yossi Alpher, a strategic analyst and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It is certainly shared by some of the people close to Netanyahu, and possibly by Netanyahu himself,” though “Netanyahu is very careful about what he says about Kerry.”
Alpher added about Kerry that “There’s a general sense that he’s over-dedicated and over-optimistic.”
Spyer said Israeli officials were asking themselves why Kerry was “investing all this time, exerting pressure, and why Israel is forced to release murderers of Israelis in pursuit of a process which seems quite obviously doomed to failure.”
Israel has been releasing in phases 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners it agreed to free as part of understandings that enabled the resumption of peace talks.
“John Kerry is going through a learning process the rest of us learned 10 years ago, and Israel is required to pay a heavy price,” Spyer added.
While details of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remain under wraps, public disagreements have erupted over Israel’s insistence on a long-term presence of Israeli troops along the West Bank’s border with Jordan and Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinians have rejected any Israeli military presence in a future Palestinian state and have dismissed the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, saying that would ignore the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, some 20 percent of the country’s population.
The two sides also remain far apart on the Palestinian demand for a capital in East Jerusalem and recognition of the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel.
When the talks restarted last July, Kerry set a goal of nine months to reach a final accord. But U.S. efforts are now focused on reaching an agreed framework for continuing the negotiations beyond April.
In comments to the New Yorker magazine published this week, President Barack Obama said the chances of reaching a final treaty were less than 50 percent, reflecting a more sober view in Washington.
Referring to the attempts to reach accords on Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama said: “We may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”
“The whole American approach seems to be ‘Ignore the lessons of the failures of the past 20 years,’ ” Alpher said, adding that Washington had adopted the agenda of the 1993 Oslo interim accords between Israel and the Palestinians that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
“This was from the start a formula for failure,” he said.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.