Secretary of State John F. Kerry is planning to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict again, as he departs Wednesday evening for Europe and the Middle East, where he will hold a series of meetings to try to help quell a wave of violence in Israel.
His first stop is Germany, where he will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will talk separately, probably in Amman, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
But expectations are low that he will be able to accomplish much as alarm grows about the spreading violence over the status of the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, a site that is holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Ten Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians in the past month, and at least 50 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis, including 25 who Israel said were attackers, and others in clashes with Israeli security forces.
The unrest has been fueled by Palestinian rumors that Israel wants to change the decades-long status of the site, which allows Jews to visit the complex but not pray there. Israel has said there will be no change and denounced the rumors as an incitement to violence.
Kerry has acknowledged Israel’s intention to leave the status quo unchanged, but has said there should be more “clarity” and a common understanding of what that means. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday that Kerry doesn’t believe the clarification necessarily needs to be put in writing, which Israel opposes.
His ultimate goal, if calm can be restored, is to encourage both sides to resume negotiations toward establishing two states.
“He wants to see all sides take appropriate action to reduce the violence, to restore calm and to hopefully be able to be in a position where we can start to move forward on the two-state solution,” Kirby said.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a visit this week to Israel and the West Bank also addressed the violence, which some are describing as a third intifada, or uprising.
“I have stressed to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders the urgent need to reaffirm through words and deeds that they are partners for peace,” he said Wednesday at a news conference in Ramallah. “They must refrain from unilateral steps that diminish prospects for peace, and make significant improvements on the ground aimed at building the foundations for a two-state solution.”
Kerry himself outlined his approach Monday night as he accepted Foreign Policy magazine’s Diplomat of the Year award. He recalled that his previous, nine-month effort to advance peace talks collapsed, but suggested the time may be ripe to revive negotiations.
“I am convinced that all of the work that was done is still there, still ready, and that given the right choices, it is possible over the course of these next 16 months to try to find that path again,” he said. “History teaches us that every important diplomatic initiative does entail risk, but sitting on the sidelines and allowing problems to simply fester is more often than not the most perilous course of all.”
Neither Netanyahu or Abbas have much political room to act.
Netanyahu’s coalition has a slim majority in the Knesset, with 61 seats in the 120-member body; most of the members of the coalition oppose a two-state solution.
“He has to choose, between the coalition as it is, or a serious attempt to change the situation,” said Ephraim Sneh, who is the head of the Israel Hazaka Party and who favors a two-state solution.
Abbas is increasingly unpopular among Palestinians who believe he has been ineffective in bringing about an end to Israeli occupation.
“The third intifada might be directed not at Israel alone, but at the Palestinian Authority,” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who now directs Middle East studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There’s a lot of frustration among Palestinians as to the performance of the Palestinian Authority.”
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who once served on the Palestinian negotiating team, called Kerry’s efforts “too little, too late.”
“There is very little he can do at this point,” she said. “The people who are going out protesting and beyond have very real grievances that have not been addressed over the last 22 years of negotiations. . . . They heard all the promises, and they do not believe anyone anymore.”
Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, faults Kerry for urging Israelis as well as Palestinians to take steps to tone down the rhetoric and stem the violence.
“What has Israel done? All Israel has done is defend itself,” said Klein, who met with Netanyahu on Monday.
Klein said he expects Kerry to ask Netanyahu to stop blocking Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, to roll back increased prison sentences for rock throwers, and to set new limits on times when Jews can visit the Temple Mount, as Jews call the compound.
“Netanyahu is not able to do it,” Klein said. “I have no confidence anything good will come from his visit.”
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