The suspension of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians on Thursday delivered the harshest blow yet to U.S. 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.
But Kerry refused to accept defeat, saying "we will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities" of Mideast peace.
Kerry sought 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 State Department, just a few hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv bluntly said the peace process had taken "a giant leap backward."
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Even diplomats and experts sympathetic to Kerry's desire to soldier on with the talks declared the Mideast peace process on life support. Others, impatient with what they described as the Obama administration's rudderless foreign policy, said the U.S. 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 an April 29 deadline. "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 last month that have eroded any trust or progress built since last summer. The worst blow came 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 U.S., European Union and other countries. 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 — those who support Hamas and those who back its rival, the Fatah party of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and current President Mahmoud Abbas.
Similar deals have been struck before between Hamas and the Fatah. All have failed, and U.S. experts said all sides should wait and see if the new agreement, reached Wednesday, also fizzles out before declaring an end to the peace process with Israel.
Former U.S. diplomat and Mideast 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 President Bill Clinton's Mideast adviser. "It's fair to say it's on life support. I wouldn't say this thing is done and can't be resurrected."
Glaring lack of meaningful progress
Time is not on Kerry's side, nor has it been throughout the negotiations.
Originally, Kerry had envisioned a full agreement within nine months. When it became clear earlier this year that was not possible, given a glaring lack of meaningful progress, the State Department adjusted its ambitions and set an April 29 deadline for producing a framework plan to keep the talks going for months longer.
It was not immediately clear how long the U.S. is now prepared to let the latest impasse continue. U.S. negotiators will remain in the region for the time being, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Throughout the year, Kerry has been forced to brush off snide accusations from critics that he is doggedly pursuing a peace deal in order to nab a Nobel Prize or make the Mideast his legacy issue after decades of statesmanship. During that time, the civil war in Syria has turned bloodier, with as many as 150,000 people killed and President Bashar Assad showing no signs of leaving.
Russia, meanwhile, has begun to flex its muscle in neighbouring former Soviet states, annexing the Crimea region in Ukraine and threatening to take over even more territory across that nation or others.
No one accuses Kerry of ignoring other diplomatic crises, and he has spent at least as much time travelling to hotspots for negotiations on various problems during his first year at the State Department as he has spent in Washington.
But Elliott Abrams, another longtime diplomat and top Mideast adviser to President George W. Bush, described the peace process as a "forced march" fuelled 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 U.S., Israel and Palestinian leaders, and "because the two-state solution is still ultimately the right outcome."
"The pipe dream was Kerry's belief that he could quickly reach a final status agreement; that was a vision based almost entirely on vanity," Abrams said. "The administration should seriously be asking itself how it screwed things up so badly."