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As U.S. tries to save talks, Kerry touts past progress, says ‘fight is over process’

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies during aSenate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 8, 2014. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 8, 2014. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration is sticking with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for now despite a crisis that has threatened to scuttle talks.

That’s the message U.S. officials were peddling as a top State Department team was in the region turning over the engine attempting to restart the talks.

“The bitter irony is that at this point the fight is over process, it’s not over the final status agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

U.S. efforts to keep the talks alive were accompanied by warnings that the process was not open-ended. The willingness of the Palestinians and the Israelis to attend meetings aimed at reconvening the talks indicate that the sides either have too much invested in negotiations to walk away or at least do not want to be blamed for their collapse.

Kerry said that if the talks could be revived, they could yield real achievements.

“There is a way to get into substantive decisions,” he said. “A lot of groundwork has been laid in the last several months.”

The State Department peace team led by Martin Indyk has convened the sides three times this week in a bid to restart the talks.

“At the request of the parties, the U.S. facilitated a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators this evening to continue the intensive effort to resolve their differences,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday in a statement of the third such meeting. “Gaps remain, but both sides are committed to narrow the gaps.”

The goal now is to get the sides to agree to extend the talks beyond the April 29 deadline.

“We’re trying to see whether they can find a way forward and the time needed to address the core issues,” a U.S. official privy to the talks told JTA speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Kerry did not describe what substantive advances the talks had achieved in keeping with his pledge from the outset to keep such details secret until an overall plan is ready.

But Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East adviser to the Obama administration who still informally advises the White House, said the advances involved borders and security arrangements.

“What Kerry has succeeded in doing is getting into the most serious discussions on the core issues since 2000,” Ross said at a talk April 4 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is a counsel.

In the framework proposal that was shaping up before the talks breakdown, Ross said, “You’d have a fairly high degree of specificity on borders and security, and probably less of a degree of specificity on [Palestinian] refugees and Jerusalem.”

Kerry, speaking to the Senate, traced the breakdown of the talks to Israel’s decision not to meet a March 29 deadline to release the final batch of 104 Palestinian prisoners it had pledged to free at the outset of the talks.

“Unfortunately the prisoners weren’t released on Saturday,” he said.

The Obama administration had made progress in working out a new deal to bring the sides back to the talks when on April 1, “suddenly 700 units were announced, and then ‘poof,’ ” Kerry said, referring to the Israeli government’s announcement of a building start in eastern Jerusalem.

Kerry then cited the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas within hours of the Jerusalem building declaration that he would apply to join 15 international conventions. The Palestine Liberation Organization in a statement acknowledged that the move violated the terms of the resumption of talks from last July, but said it was justified by Israeli actions.

Kerry described the sequence as a series of “unhelpful” actions, which led to a spate of Israeli media headlines reporting that Kerry was blaming Israel for the breakdown — a characterization denied by the State Department.

“John Kerry was again crystal clear today that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game,” Psaki wrote on Twitter following Kerry’s testimony. “He even singled out by name Prime Minister Netanyahu for having made courageous decisions throughout process.”

Another factor leading to the breakdown was an increasingly tense public exchange between the Palestinians and Israelis over whether the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington until last year, said the Israeli emphasis appeared to represent a shift in strategy.

“It’s a departure from the policy that I represented,” he said in an interview with JTA last week. “The policy I represented was that the ‘Jewish state’ issue would be at the conclusion of the process.”

The fact that Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is also the chief negotiator, were bringing it up now could signify real advances in the peace talks, Oren said.

“You could say that they’re at the end of the process,” he said.

Obama administration officials, including Kerry, have made clear in recent days that the process cannot just drag on without progress.

“We cannot negotiate forever if we don’t see a path forward,” said the U.S. official privy to the talks, confirming that the viability of continuing the negotiations had been raised in internal Obama administration discussions.

Kerry was not ready to give up, however, and in his testimony he vigorously pushed back against the description of the talks as “dead” advanced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“It’s interesting that you declare it dead, but the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t declare it dead,” he said, arching his back and raising his voice.

Oren said the Israelis and the Palestinians were too invested in the process to willingly let it die — but that did not necessarily mean the talks would survive the current crisis.

“I think it’s a tactical glitch,” he said, “but the tactical glitch could become permanent.”