Obama may be in two minds over Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace mission

The give-and-take over an Israeli-Palestinian accord, doggedly kept afloat by US Secretary of State John Kerry, is resolving itself into a complex dynamic depending heavily on personalities and their interrelations.

Kerry needs to overcome reservations in President Barack Obama’s White House team; Israel’s A-team – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – are not of one mind on the issues; Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s popular base is infamously flimsy.
The over-heated war of words between Jerusalem and Washington did not erupt in Israel’s A-Team. It came from a second-string cabinet member, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, who was challenged by two fellow members, the senior negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
Yet Secretary Kerry reacted emotionally to aspersions, some of them imagined.  

His warning of a boycott and international isolation threatening Israel if his initiative failed, struck a sensitive nerve and was interpreted as an attempt at intimidation. But no responsible Israeli ever accused him of anti-Semitism – as US Ambassador Dan Shapiro claimed in a radio interview Friday, Feb. 7. The words of a member of Bennett’s party may have been interpreted as such, and he quickly took them back.

The spoof parodying Kerry as scattering ridiculous concessions to the Palestinians was mild compared to the savage political satire routinely targeting Israeli politicians. It could have been laughed off. But by repeatedly rushing to the Secretary’s defense over a couple of remarks by a minister, frustrated by his exclusion from the negotiating loop, the State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki made a mountain out of a molehill.
So where does the US-Israeli-Palestinian peace process go from here?

Breaking new diplomatic ground, Kerry is pressing the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian leader to submit in writing their views and reservations on the US positions he put before them in private, one-on-one conversations. He proposes to embody their comments in a non-binding paper to be the framework for further negotiations. 
That paper has two-against-one support in the top Israeli threesome: Netanyahu accepts it as a basis for negotiations, but wants changes with reference to Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and less clarity on the extent of swaps for the settlement blocs remaining on the West Bank in a Palestinian state as well as Jerusalem. These issues should be left vague, in the prime minister’s view.

Lieberman, who morphed in recent months into Washington’s most ardent fan in the Israeli cabinet, urges full acceptance of the Kerry paper.

Ya’alon is the holdout. He advocates its rejection – ruling out in particular the security plan composed by US Gen. John Allen.
Kerry and his team have marked the defense minister, rather than Bennett, as the mainspring of Israeli resistance to his effort.
The critics of the handling of his mission are to be found in Washington as well as Jerusalem. Some circles, as high as the White House level, believe Kerry erred in places and left gaps that may be hard to bridge.

His State Department team is faulted, for instance, for over-reliance on Mahmoud Abbas as the single negotiator for the Palestinians. Instead of building a broad popular foundation, they will be placing any future accord on an extremely narrow and flimsy base.

All three parties, Kerry, Israel and Abbas, are seen as missing a rare opportunity for addressing the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip at their lowest moment in a decade. Instead, Abbas has focused on the Palestinian refugee question. His latest demand is for each individual Palestinian refugee to be given the option of choosing where he wants to live after the conclusion of a peace accord with Israel. That was in fact the only core issue addressed last week.

It would seem that it is up to three individuals to determine the outcome of the sensitive, brittle peace process which John Kerry set in motion nearly a year ago. But that would be an over-simplification. Netanyahu must win the approval of his government and people (he has promised a national referendum for this purpose); Abbas does not speak for the Palestinian majority; and the Secretary of State will have to take the deal back to Washington for President Obama’s approval, which is far from being in his pocket.

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