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Defying naysayers on all sides, Kerry keeps pushing Israelis, Palestinians to table

Conventional wisdom is that the Israelis and Palestinians are too far apart to even begin talks, but Secretary of State John Kerry appeared undaunted on his fourth visit in as many months.

John Kerry made his fourth visit to the Middle East in as many months this week in order to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but the absence of any outward progress has left many observers wondering if the secretary of state’s full-court diplomatic press is leading anywhere.

Undaunted by the administration’s first-term failure with the peace process and conventional wisdom that the sides are simply too far apart to even begin talking, Mr. Kerry is believed to be pushing for a mixture of economic, political, and security measures to coax the sides into the same room.

Before meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and continuing on to Ramallah to huddle with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas today, Kerry acknowledged that faith is in short supply.

“I know this region well enough to know that there is skepticism. In some corridors, there’s cynicism. And there are reasons for it. There have been bitter years of disappointment,” he said.

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Kerry has made only very limited headway. Observers note that Israel has refrained from announcing any new building plans in the West Bank settlements since Mr. Netanyahu’s government was inaugurated in March and the Palestinians have agreed to freeze efforts to gain recognition of statehood by international organizations. The secretary of state is also working on pushing business projects in the West Bank to boost the Palestinian economy.

But one month after promising an economic package and urging on the sides to “do their home work,” there was no announcement.

At the same time, he is working to boost Arab leaders’ support for the peace talks, and earlier this month got the first-ever statement by the Arab League supporting a redrawing of the West Bank border to enable Israel to annex settlements and swap land in return.  

“He believes that he can succeed where others failed, but I remain skeptical,” says Mike Herzog, a former Israeli peace negotiator and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t think anything has changed in the basic elements in the picture.”

Mr. Herzog argues that the regional shifts in the Middle East since the eruption of the Arab Spring two years ago have made peace negotiations more difficult.  At the expense of Mr. Abbas, the rising fortunes of political Islam have led regional powers like Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar to bolster Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and rejects peace talks.

Those same changes have made Israel leery of making concessions before “the dust settles,” he says.

The Palestinians, while indulging Mr. Kerry by making some overtures toward talks by freezing efforts to upgrade their status in international organizations, continue to view Israel’s government with suspicion, arguing there’s been no slowdown in settlement expansion. Reports last week that Israel planned to legalize four unauthorized settlement outposts bolstered that view.

“We know that Netanyahu doesn’t want a two-state solution,” says a Palestinian official, who asked to remain unnamed because he said he was not authorized to speak on the matter. “Even though people say that there’s a slowdown in building, we don’t see it on the ground. We don’t see any willingness.”

Mr. Kerry will remain in the region through the weekend and is expected to continue Arab-Israeli meetings at a regional session of the World Economic Forum in Jordan on Sunday.

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Speaking at Netanyahu’s office, he said that his plan is to exceed the low expectations. “It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient – but detailed and tenacious – that we can lay out a path ahead that could conceivably surprise people,” he said.