Stalled Mideast talks stymie Kerry

Top envoy says U.S. will rethink strategy, agenda

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RABAT, Morocco -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that the Obama administration planned to re-evaluate its approach to Middle East peacemaking and decide whether it was even worth continuing the effort in light of the inability of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to make progress.

"There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward," said Mr. Kerry, who added it was "reality check time."

Forging a Palestinian and Israeli peace has been Mr. Kerry's top diplomatic priority since he became secretary of state and one he has pursued in more than a dozen visits to the region.

The tumultuous events in Ukraine and the civil war in Syria forced themselves onto the agenda of the Obama administration, whose priorities have been at home. Iran's nuclear program has been a major concern for several U.S. administrations.

But Mr. Kerry, virtually single-handedly, has pushed the Middle East peace process toward the top of the administration's foreign policy priorities, declaring at one point that his goal was to achieve a comprehensive peace accord within nine months.

The secretary's goals have gradually receded as his Middle East team tried to coax the two sides to negotiate over issues that have bitterly divided them for decades.

After securing a full treaty seemed too daunting, Mr. Kerry's team focused on securing a "framework" within their nine-month target date that would outline the main parameters of an agreement.

More recently, just persuading the two sides to extend the talks beyond April has been Mr. Kerry's all-consuming mission.

Even then, Mr. Kerry has clung to his ultimate vision of completing a comprehensive accord that would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.

Mr. Kerry, who left for Europe on March 23 to attend a nuclear security summit in The Hague, Netherlands, with President Barack Obama and has not been back to the United States since, interrupted his recent travels to rush to Amman, Jordan, and then Jerusalem to try to salvage the talks. But he encountered setbacks that suggested that neither side was prepared to yield to U.S. entreaties.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, did not inform Mr. Kerry of his Tuesday speech in which he announced that the Palestinian side would sign 15 international agreements and treaties -- a move the Palestinians made in response to Israel's reluctance to release, as promised, a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners.

Nor did Israel give Mr. Kerry warning before formally declaring Thursday that the last batch of prisoners would not be set free.

As Mr. Kerry prepared to return to the United States on Friday, he acknowledged at a news conference in Morocco that the actions of both sides had been "unhelpful."

Even so, some experts say Mr. Kerry is so committed to his Middle East initiative that it is more likely that he will push for a change in diplomatic strategy, perhaps by tabling a U.S. peace plan, instead of simply walking away from the Middle East talks.

"I think it is a tactic to get the parties to get him more involved," said Robert Danin, a former U.S. official who worked on Middle East issues.

"I find it surprising that Secretary Kerry, after driving this process so hard, did not play the one card he has left, and that is to put down an American plan or set of ideas for the agreement he has been seeking," Mr. Danin added. "That suggests to me that he may be contemplating a pause but not abandonment of his peace efforts."

An Israeli official with knowledge of the negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of Mr. Kerry's ban on discussing them publicly, also said he did not believe that Washington would really withdraw from the process.

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