US sees role in peace talks coming to a close — report

Officials in Washington say White House and others want Kerry to ‘lower volume’ on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and focus on other issues

Israelis dismantling a protest tent in Jerusalem against a planned prisoner release after it was called off Thursday night, April 3, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis dismantling a protest tent in Jerusalem against a planned prisoner release after it was called off Thursday night, April 3, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As peace talks appeared to suffer a fatal blow this week, US officials indicated Washington may dial down its engagement with the process and call on Secretary of State John Kerry, who has worked frantically to keep the process afloat, to “lower the volume.”

White House and American diplomatic officials were quoted in The Washington Post Friday as saying that the US is worried Kerry may be investing too much effort in the fruitless negotiations instead of other pressing international matters.

“A point will come where he has to go out and own the failure,” an official is quoted as saying, adding that Kerry should “lower the volume and see how things unfold” for now.

The report is the first to indicate that Washington may admit that peace talks are ending, despite attempts over the last several days to weather a series of measures by both sides that seemed to push talks beyond the brink of no-return.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said the sides were still willing to take talks forward, despite indications from both sides that negotiations were all but over.

“Neither side, throughout this process recently, has indicated they want to walk away from the talks. They both indicated they want to find a path forward,” she told reporters.

As talks appeared to fall apart over the past week, Kerry spoke several times with Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser, according to the report.

Though the White House has given Kerry leeway on how to manage the process, President Barack Obama now believes US engagement has gone as far as it can go, the Post reported, citing senior officials.

Kerry himself seemed to exhibit frustration with the process on Thursday, saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas needed to act as leaders.

“You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions to compromise,” he said. “The leaders have to lead, and they have to be able to see a moment when it’s there.”

The breakdown in talks was touched off at the end of March, as Israel balked at releasing a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, as agreed to at the start of talks in July 2013. Ramallah responded by applying to join 15 international bodies, many of which are related to the UN, breaching an agreement they made at the start of talks.

In what was reportedly a very unpleasant meeting Wednesday night, Israel’s chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, was said to have demanded of her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, that Abbas rescind the applications to the 15 treaties. After that request was refused, Livni announced Thursday that Israel would not release the Palestinian inmates.

Leaders on both sides appeared increasingly entrenched in their positions Thursday night. Palestinian and Israeli media outlets quoted Abbas as saying, “I would rather become a martyr” than rescind the applications he signed on Tuesday to join 15 UN and other international treaties and conventions. Instead, the Palestinians reportedly issued a long list of new preconditions for resuming talks — demands that Israeli officials privately dismissed immediately.

These preconditions, according to the Ma’an news agency, included a demand for official Israeli agreement to the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital; the release of 1,200 Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorist chiefs Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat; a building freeze in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; granting Israeli citizenship to 15,000 Palestinians under a family reunification program; the termination of Israel’s security blockade of Gaza; permission to bar the IDF from entering Area A (areas under full Palestinian control) to arrest or kill terror operatives; and increased Palestinian control in Area C (areas under full Israeli control).

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