July 22, 2013 | Quote

Stage Set for Middle East Peace Talks, Kerry Says

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.

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.”


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