Obama assigns Kerry to prod sides back to the path of peace

Obama assigns Kerry to prod sides back to the path of peace

The president’s approach has two stages: First get younger Israelis and Palestinians excited about peace again, then have them push their leaders or assume leadership positions themselves

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry at Peres' residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. Obama is on an official state visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flah90)
President Shimon Peres meets with U.S. President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry at Peres' residence in Jerusalem on March 20, 2013. Obama is on an official state visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flah90)

US President Barack Obama’s visit exceeded expectations. He wooed the Israeli public with his charm and coolness, offering up a generous mix of compliments, reassurances, warnings, demonstrations of historical awareness, and even a couple of Hebrew catchphrases.

He wrapped up his visit with style too, boarding Air Force One on Friday afternoon with news that Israel and Turkey had agreed to mend relations after three years of increasing animosity.

Moments before getting on the plane to Jordan, Obama handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the phone to offer his Turkish counterpart a grudging apology for “operational errors” made in the 2010 Israeli takeover of the Mavi Marmara, and paved the way for renewed ties.

If Obama manages to build a bridge between Jerusalem and Ankara, Israelis will forever be grateful. But the path to a full reconciliation — one that might see Israelis flock back to their favorite holiday destination of old, and the two countries’ armies resume annual joint exercises — is still unclear.

What else is Israel taking home from this historic 52-hour visit? Now that the speeches, the children’s choirs and the guestbook signings are over, what are we left with? It might be too early to open the champagne bottles, but there are signs that the peace process might begin gathering steam.

True, outside onlookers have few reasons to read much into the visit in this respect. Yes, Obama’s powerhouse speech Thursday in Jerusalem was empathic, inspirational, brutally honest in content but courteous and friendly in tone. But one thing it was not: an address that outlined concrete foreign policy positions. After a two-and-half day visit packed with speeches, meetings, and ceremonies, we are left with plenty of memorable moments  but few conclusive ideas about what’s next.

“Peace is necessary,” Obama said Thursday in his Jerusalem address. But he was decidedly more vague about what he or his secretary of state, John Kerry, are going to do about it. Obama’s rhetoric throughout the visit seemed to suggest that the will to achieve peace must first and foremost come from the parties themselves, and that he wants to merely assume the position of an honest broker, an interlocutor who doesn’t impose concessions on either side. It seems that Kerry, however, is eager to engage and try to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together, and if not reach a final agreement, perhaps an interim solution.

Obama fully supported Israel’s right to defend itself, said Iran must not attain nuclear weapons, Syria must not use or transfer chemical weapons, and that the endgame of the peace process must be “two states for two peoples” — but all of this, we knew he’d say, long before he landed here on Wednesday. The news came on Thursday, when he said, for the first time, that the “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.” Netanyahu was surely delighted to hear that, given that it’s one of his key demands from the Palestinians.

Obama made the Palestinians understand “that it’s simply not going to work without such a recognition,” Maariv’s diplomatic correspondent Eli Bardenshtein wrote Friday.

But the president did not mention any other specifics. He said that “continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace,” but did not, as far as we know, force another construction moratorium on the Israeli government. He did not explicitly mention the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations (as he has in the past), nor did he bring up the sovereignty of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, or any other final-status issues.

“I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for talks. But for the moment, put aside the plans and process,” he said at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. “I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people.”

In one of the speech’s key passages, he said that peace begins “not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem.”

Turning directly to the students in the hall, he promised them that their government will not take risks for peace if the people don’t demand it. “You must create the change that you want to see,” he said. This phrase, like many others he uttered during his stay in Israel, indicates that he is not interested in forcing Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into any kind of agreement. Four years after Obama swept into the White House with promises of “change we can believe in,” he realized that, in the political reality, things don’t always go as smoothly as they should.

On Wednesday, at a press conference with Netanyahu, Obama said that a solution to the conflict required “a confluence of both good diplomatic work, but also timing, serendipity, things falling into place at the right time, the right players feeling that this is the moment to seize it.” His goal was, he added, “just to make sure that the United States is a positive force in trying to create those opportunities as frequently as possible.”

Which is not to say that his administration is not going to be actively pursuing peace. Rather, Obama’s approach has two broad stages: First appeal to younger Israelis and Palestinians and get them excited about the prospect of peace again; then reap the rewards, and watch the sides reap the rewards, when they push their leaders forward or themselves assume leadership positions.

In the here and now of global politics, Obama is sending his secretary of state to try to at least get negotiations underway again. Kerry, who was to accompany the president to Jordan and then return to Jerusalem for more consultations with Netanyahu, is expected to spend much time in the region in the coming weeks and months.

“Kerry very much wants to be active in this area. Obama is cautious about using his presidential political capital, but Kerry is eager to act — which is why he arrived before Obama and will leave after he goes,” Michael Herzog, a veteran of past Israeli peace negation teams, told the Global Post.

According to Herzog, a former intelligence officer and current fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the White House will not launch a high-profile peace initiative. “There are lowered expectations. Most of the work will be conducted behind the scenes,” he said. “The emphasis is on a lot of preparatory meetings and stage setting, leading to both bilateral and regional talks.”

Haaretz reported that Kerry and Obama “intend to set a three-to-six-month time frame for examining whether a breakthrough in the peace process can be achieved.”

Still, something unexpected happened before Obama left.

What was supposed to be a brief meeting between him and Netanyahu, turned out to be much longer than expected. Up until that point, everything had gone exactly according to plan. The president arrived at the King David Hotel exactly at 10:50 A.M., as scheduled, to meet with the premier. But the two leaders spoke for much longer than they were supposed to. What where they discussing? Surely they wouldn’t make the world wait to chat about frivolous matters.

Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal reported that they were talking about ”regional strategic issues.” To be more exact, Obama and Netanyahu were discussing security arrangements for Israel as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has, in principle, agreed to recognize a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state of Israel. However, he demands to retain an Israel security presence in the Jordan Valley after any withdrawal.

In light of this development, analysts believe the US is planning a significant push toward a resumption of negotiations in the near future.

How exactly the two sides bridge the most complicated gaps that remain  — Jerusalem, refugees, and final borders — is still unclear at this point.

Either way, with the American secretary of state expected to shuttle between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, the Israeli public can assume that the Palestinian issue will return to the headlines — after a brief hiatus during which politicians here will talk mostly about the cost of living, drafting the Ultra-Orthodox, and sometimes Iran. But if Obama’s “hope” — he used that word five times in his Jerusalem address — that Israelis and Palestinians can move ahead toward an agreement proves unfounded, expect the US administration to give up and turn its attention elsewhere. We cannot want peace more than you, the Americans will tell the two parties, and leave them to their fate.

“You must create the change that you want to see,” Obama told the Israeli people, with an emphasis on “you.”

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