Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mideast peace: Will Obama give Kerry a chance? Israel trip could offer clue.

The Mideast peace process may not be at the top of Obama's agenda, but analysts say Secretary Kerry, who is accompanying the president in Israel, is eager to tackle the challenge.

By Howard LaFranchi,?Staff writer / March 19, 2013

Palestinian activists throw shoes at a poster of US President Barack Obama in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Monday. Obama?s trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank is scheduled for March 20th to the 22nd, and it is the US leader?s first trip to the region as president.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP


President Obama is not expected to announce any major initiative to relaunch the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process when he visits the region beginning Wednesday. But his top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, is known to be anxious to tackle an issue that some say has become almost a third rail in the president?s second term.

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The question now is whether Mr. Obama, who is considered by many Washington policy experts to be the most controlling president of the nation?s foreign policy since perhaps Richard Nixon, will be willing to loosen the reins enough to give Secretary Kerry, and peace, a chance.

Tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ?does not appear to be a priority for the second [Obama] term, [but] it is a priority for John Kerry,? says Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who is now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Ambassador Indyk, who was an adviser to President Clinton on the Middle East peace process, says Obama ?would rather turn away from this region,? but he adds that it is clear Kerry feels ?the opposite,? and in particular is anxious ?to take on the Israeli-Palestinian challenge.?

Obama set out as a new president launching an ambitious Mideast peace bid, and tried again in May 2011 when he used a major speech on the peace process to declare that the 1967 borders should serve as the starting point for negotiating land issues. But neither attempt got the president ? or the peace process ? very far.?

A clue as to whether Kerry is going to be allowed to do that should come this week ? as Obama visits Israel and the occupied West Bank with his secretary of state at his side ? if it is going to happen at all.

?It?s important that the president publicly empower Secretary Kerry on this visit,? Indyk says, noting that leaders in the region ? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the top of the list ? see that Kerry has the president?s full backing.

They need to know that ?Kerry is empowered,? he says, ?and that the president will be behind him in every way.?

Speculation about a Kerry stab at reviving the peace process has risen in the context of Obama?s trip despite the mixed signals coming from the conflict?s key players.

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians insist they are ready to return to negotiations, even as many regional analysts list the reasons why neither side is really ready.

Prime Minister Netanyahu went so far as to declare Israel ready to reach a ?historic compromise? with Palestinians as he introduced his new coalition government to the Knesset, the national parliament.


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