AFP – US Secretary of State John Kerry was scrambling Wednesday to save his faltering Middle East peace efforts, after both Israel and Palestinians delivered him a stunning slap in the face.
The top US diplomat, who has made the quest for a long-elusive peace treaty his personal holy grail, was blindsided late Tuesday as minutes before a press conference at the NATO headquarters, both sides went rogue.
The Palestinians, infuriated by Israel’s refusal to release some 26 Palestinian prisoners by a weekend deadline, announced out of the blue that they were planning to take their claim for statehood to 15 agencies.
And Israel, having already broken the terms of a July deal to return to the negotiating table, unveiled tenders for 700 more homes in east Jerusalem.
Kerry, who only hours before had held a two-hour breakfast meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem following late-night talks, abruptly cancelled plans to fly back to the region Wednesday to see Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
Instead he was working the phones from the secure US mission at NATO, contacting foreign leaders, a senior State Department official said. It was also more than likely he would be conferring with the White House.
He will “conduct several calls with foreign counterparts and the US Middle East negotiating team while in Brussels,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
But it was not immediately clear where Kerry can go from here, with both sides trading recriminations and the fragile peace effort seemingly in tatters.
Palestinian officials said they hoped that Kerry would resume his efforts in the coming days.
“Kerry knows the reality. We don’t want these efforts to finish,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, told reporters in Ramallah.
Washington had been pushing to extend the talks hurtling towards a 29 April deadline until the end of the year, having made little headway in agreeing a framework for final status negotiations.
Some commentators suggested Abbas’s move was little more than a publicity stunt, with no immediate practical effect.
But it left Kerry in a quandry.
“Kerry has gone as far as he can as mediator, absent major decisions by the parties themselves,” the Washington Post wrote, quoting a senior administration official.
If he fails to get the peace talks back on track, it will mark a humiliating blow for Kerry and is certain to elicit a round of smug “told-you-so’s” from many old hands, who have seen hopes raised and dashed over the decades.
Kerry himself insisted that it was “premature to draw… any final judgement about today’s events and where things are”.
And he again urged both sides to look at the final goal of peace.
The tough behind-the-scenes negotiations, in which Kerry has invested countless hours and energy, had already been complicated by news the US could make a three-way deal under which Washington would free a convicted US-born Israeli spy in return for the release of the Palestinian prisoners.
The US intelligence community and American right has long opposed the early release of Jonathan Pollard, arrested in 1985 and sentenced to life imprisonment for spying for Israel, even though he’s due for parole in 2015.
And there was sharp criticism in the media at news that Kerry and his team were considering using him as a bargaining chip.
The peace effort “has degenerated into… a desperate race to prevent the talks from collapsing,” the Washington Post editorial board wrote, arguing against Pollard’s release as a “last-ditch” effort.
The potential fallout from a second failed attempt to broker peace by this US administration would pose a grim prospect for President Barack Obama.
While Obama has endorsed Kerry’s efforts publicly, it has remained unclear just how much he would be willing to back his top diplomat if things go AWOL.
Already under fire both at home and abroad for his perceived weakness in foreign policy, such as a failure to conduct robust efforts to end the war in Syria, Obama and his team may be unwilling to give Kerry more rein to meddle in the Middle East.
It may be that after making a comprehensive peace deal his signature issue, Kerry could find that the White House pulls the plug from a process now on life-support.