Netanyahu initially welcomed Kerry’s peace initiative, ex-US envoy says

‘Yes, let’s do it,’ PM replied in 2013 after US secretary of state offered to broker fresh talks, Dan Shapiro recalls. Later, it all went sour

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) greets Then-US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro before boarding a plane while leaving Ben Gurion Airport after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP)
Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) greets Then-US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro before boarding a plane while leaving Ben Gurion Airport after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was initially positively disposed toward then-secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said Tuesday.

Netanyahu’s government bickered bitterly with the US administration about the Palestinian issue, but when Kerry first broached the idea of another effort to reach a final-status agreement in 2013, the prime minister was keen to give it a go, Shapiro said.

Kerry started to coordinate his peace initiative during Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel, in late March 2013, Shapiro said in a series of Twitter posts marking the trip’s fifth anniversary Tuesday.

“Netanyahu always wanted negotiations with the Palestinians, and he supported Kerry’s effort,” the former envoy wrote. Shapiro said he and Obama were skeptical, “but Kerry & Netanyahu wanted to proceed.”

The Kerry talks, led by then-justice minister Tzipi Livni and senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, formally got underway on July 29, 2013. Nine months later, they broke down unsuccessfully, due to what a senior Israeli negotiator said were various mistakes by all sides (though he apportioned the lion share of the blame to Kerry).

“Obviously, the way it unfolded, there were all kinds of disagreements and complaints by various people about it,” Shapiro told The Times of Israel later on Tuesday.

Kerry offered to launch a new initiative to negotiate a final-status agreement during Obama’s three-day trip to Israel, he said.

“The prime minister said: ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” according to Shapiro.

“Now it probably didn’t take a long time for some of those meetings — Kerry came like 15 times that year — to get contentious on this issue or that issue,” he said. “But on this visit in March of 2013 — yes, the prime minister wanted to give it a try.”

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel between 2011 and 2017, said Obama’s and his hesitance was due to the fact that they had witnessed the failed peace effort led by the administration’s special envoy to the peace process, George Mitchell, in 2010-11.

“We had experienced the first term and the whole Mitchell efforts, and seen how it was unsuccessful for various reasons,” Shapiro recalled. “My skepticism was that not that all that much had changed, in terms of the dynamic between the parties — the same leaders, similar political circumstances, the same substantive gaps. That made me skeptical that we were going to have a different outcome if we tried it again.”

Obama also remembered Mitchell’s failure, but Kerry, who had just joined the administration, “was enthusiastic” about the prospects of launching another effort to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace, Shapiro said.

Kerry returned to Israel mere days after Obama’s March visit, and in his first meetings with the prime minister “laid out his vision in very general terms on how to proceed,” said Shapiro, who attended many of these meetings.

Netanyahu “obviously had his own specification” about how peace talks should look, he added. But he was definitely happy to try another round, the former ambassador said.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Jerusalem hotel on December 13, 2013. The suite’s balcony overlooks the Old City walls of Jerusalem and the Jaffa Gate area amid a major snow storm (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash 90.)

“Whether Netanyahu thought it could succeed or not was a different question,” Shapiro went on. “He might have felt that the right positioning for Israel was to be open to negotiations, to try, to drive a hard bargain, with very low expectations that the Palestinians would meet his needs, but that at least he would have been honestly giving it a try.”

Netanyahu was probably driven by both a genuine desire to achieve peace and “tactical considerations,” surmised Shapiro, referring to the prime minister’s ostensible desire not be seen as the reason for the absence of peace talks.

US Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator (left), and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, after the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013. Those talks stalled in 2014 and have not resumed. (US State Department)

As it became clear that Kerry’s initiative would fail, Netanyahu’s interest in peace talks decreased significantly, Shapiro said. “He was very convinced it wouldn’t work. He was very convinced Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] wouldn’t do what needed to be done. Maybe he knew the limits of his own flexibility, too, but even then he has maintained — and maybe that’s more tactical — that he wants negotiations without preconditions. He says that to this day.”

Netanyahu’s position has long been to call for negotiations without preconditions, so it is not surprising that he reacted positively to Kerry’s opening idea in March 2013, Shapiro said.

“He knows full well that he doesn’t believe Abbas is very likely to make the agreement he wants. He knows full well what the difficulties are, what the gaps are, what his own political obstacles are. But why on earth would he take any other position than: ‘Yeah, let’s try’?”

One could argue Netanyahu had no other option but to say ‘yes’ to Kerry’s initiative,” the ex-envoy allowed. “But it was not like someone try to twist his arm. He was like, yeah, let’s try!”

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