WASHINGTON — After 20 years of stops, starts and a bloody intifada in between, John Kerry believes he can pull out a final status Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in nine months.
What clock is the U.S. secretary of state trying to beat?
According to his aides, the one ticking down as Syria and Egypt roil into unknowable futures and Palestinians fume at the prospect of never achieving sovereignty.
“It’s becoming more complicated on the ground, and a feeling of pessimism is settling in among Israelis and Palestinians,” said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s getting harder, not easier.”
On Tuesday, Kerry disclosed few details about a process that has been arranged and conducted largely behind a veil of secrecy.
Kerry said the next round of meetings would be conducted in the region and that Israel had agreed to take steps to ease conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza reference was new. Since the Hamas takeover of the strip in 2007, Israeli confidence-building measures have focused only on areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
“The parties have agreed to remain engaged in sustained, continuous and substantive negotiations on the core issues, and they will meet within the next two weeks in either Israel or the Palestinian territories in order to begin the process of formal negotiation," Kerry said in an appearance at the State Department flanked by the top negotiator from each side, Tzipi Livni for Israel and Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians.
The breadth of Kerry’s ambition is breathtaking given the failure of multiple U.S. administrations over two decades to bring the conflict to a close and end the deep skepticism that exists on both sides. In recent weeks, top Israeli officials have declared the two-state solution dead and talked of managing rather than resolving the conflict.
Kerry did not specify which issues are considered “core.” They would have to include not only the borders of a Palestinian state but also the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees -- issues that scuttled the 2000 Camp David talks.
Since the 2000 talks, the conventional wisdom has been to first address borders and only then proceed to the more intractable parts of the conflict.
But the clock is ticking loud enough that it appears to have roused Israeli and Palestinian leaders who had not given an inch since October 2010, when the last round of talks stopped.
“Our ability to impact the internal situation in Egypt or in Syria is very limited, but we can potentially impact our relationship with the Palestinians in a way that will increase stability in at least part of our region and perhaps better enable us to cope with the turmoil occurring elsewhere,” said Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington.
To get the latest round of talks started, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave up his insistent demand that Israel reinstate a settlement freeze prior to negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release 104 Palestinians imprisoned for violent acts dating to before the launch of the 1993 Oslo process.
Netanyahu could make such a move in part because he is secure in his government and has the backing of Israelis who for years have told pollsters that they would accept the terms of a final-status agreement negotiated by their government, said Peter Medding, an emeritus professor of political science at Hebrew University.
“He does not have anyone ready to jump ship, not at this stage,” Medding said. “There's a clear warning sign for people to the right of him who feel he's betraying the settlers, but who feel if he they jump out, he has the Labor party supporting him from the opposition.
"Those who are unhappy with what he is doing don't have much of an option.”
Netanyahu may be following in the footsteps of other Likud party leaders such as Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin and Ehud Olmert, hardliners who ultimately abandoned the idea of keeping all the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
“The question is, what is the alternative,” Medding said. “There is a part of Bibi that understands however terrible it is that a two-state solution is the only way to go as far as Israel is concerned. This may be best way for Israel to proceed in an Arab world which is having its own significant problems.”
Kerry has been relentless in pushing the sides to the table, making six trips to the region in recent months and shuttling continuously between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman.
“This is the man, Secretary Kerry, who showed everyone that nothing can stop true believers,” Livni said Tuesday. “And thank you for that.”
Two factors were central to the strategy pursued by Kerry and President Obama, who met Tuesday morning with the negotiators: reassure the Israelis that they would not be sold out and keep as much as possible under wraps.
Obama’s March visit to Israel, in which he emphasized the closeness of the defense relationship between the United States and Israel, as well as historic Jewish ties to the land, did much to advance the first element. And Kerry vowed to maintain the radio silence that got him this far, emphasizing that only he was authorized to speak publicly about the talks, per agreement with the parties.
"That means that no one should consider any reports, articles or other -- or even rumors -- reliable unless they come directly from me, and I guarantee you they won’t.”