The suspension of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians delivered the harshest blow yet to US Secretary of State John Kerry’s ambitious, if perhaps quixotic, hope of ending the decades-long impasse at the cost of focusing on other crises around the world.
Yet Kerry refused to accept defeat, saying: “We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities” of Middle East peace.
Kerry sought on Thursday to portray the latest setback with as much optimism as the dismal development would allow.
“There is always a way forward,” he told reporters at the US Department of State, just a few hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv bluntly said the peace process had taken “a giant leap backward.”
Even US diplomats and experts sympathetic to Kerry’s desire to soldier on with the talks declared the Middle East peace process on life support.
Others, impatient with what they described as the Obama administration’s rudderless foreign policy, said the US needed to move on and refocus on other pressing priorities.
Kerry acknowledged the bleakness of the situation, and said Israeli and Palestinian leaders needed to be willing to make compromises to keep the nine months of negotiations alive beyond a deadline on Tuesday next week.
“We may see a way forward, but if they’re not willing to make the compromises necessary, it becomes very elusive,” he said.
Kerry has struggled to hold together the talks after a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic maneuvers between the two sides over the past month that have eroded any trust or progress built since summer last year.
The worst blow came on Thursday when Israel’s security Cabinet agreed to shelve the negotiations as the result of a new deal struck by the Palestinian Authority to create a reconciliation government with the militant group Hamas.
Hamas has called for the destruction of the state of Israel, and is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU and other counties worldwide.
However, among Palestinians, the new agreement was hailed as a potentially historic step toward mending the rift that has split their people between two sets of rulers for seven years.
Former US diplomat and Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross said the Obama administration should wait to see whether Hamas and Fatah are able to form an interim government within five weeks, as they have pledged.
If they cannot, Ross said, the process might yet survive.
Until then, “I don’t think you can say for sure that this is over with,” said Ross, who helped cobble together talks between Netanyahu and Abbas at the White House in 2010 and served as former US president Bill Clinton’s adviser.
“It’s fair to say it’s on life support. I wouldn’t say this thing is done and can’t be resurrected,” he added.
It was not immediately clear how long the US is now prepared to let the latest impasse continue.
US negotiators will remain in the region for the time being, US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Elliott Abrams, another longtime diplomat and top Middle East adviser to former president George W. Bush, described the peace process as a “forced march” fueled by Kerry’s eagerness for a quick deal.
He predicted the peace process will live on in some form — largely because it fills a political need for the US, Israel and Palestinian leaders, and “because the two-state solution is still ultimately the right outcome.”