JERUSALEM — If, as many suspect, US President Barack Obama came on his first presidential visit to Israel bearing a concealed peace plan, it seems that he hid it in the most visible place possible: in the tall, patrician figure of his new secretary of state.
Behind the pomp of a state visit and much giddy joking about the “bromance” blossoming — at least before the cameras — between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, serious talk in Jerusalem at the end of the first day of this much touted summit focused on a possible "Kerry initiative" to re-start stagnant peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
If four rockets launched from Gaza into Israel this morning are any indication, Kerry would face a major uphill effort.
"Kerry very much wants to be active in this area. Obama is cautious about using his presidential political capital, but Kerry is eager to act — which is why he arrived before Obama and will leave after he goes," said Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog, a former Israel army intelligence officer who is an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Late on Wednesday, the White House announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would return to Jerusalem for further discussions with Netanyahu on Saturday, after the final leg of the presidential visit, in Amman, Jordan.
Herzog, a 20 year veteran of every Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process, said the United States is trying a new strategy to bring peace to the region.
“They're not opening with a high-profile launching of some new initiative. The president is not himself the face of the initiative. There are lowered expectations. Most of the work will be conducted behind the scenes,” he said. “The emphasis is on a lot of preparatory meetings and stage setting, leading to both bilateral and regional talks."
Or, as a less velvet-tongued source told GlobalPost: "The way the new initiative is being managed, if Kerry succeeds, it will be the president's success, and if he fails, it will be Kerry's failure."
At a late evening press conference with Netanyahu, Obama addressed the issue at unprecedented length, saying that though the peace process had been torpid for the past two and a half years, there were some "elements of good news."
"The Palestinian Authority has worked effectively in cooperation with the international community, in part because of some of the training that we the United States provided to do its part in maintaining security in the West Bank,” Obama said.
“We have seen some progress when it comes to economic development and opportunity for the Palestinian people. But the truth of the matter is, trying to bring this to some sort of clear settlement, a solution that would allow Israelis to feel as if they've broken out of the current isolation that they're in in this region ... for Palestinians to feel a sense that they too are masters of their own fate ... that kind of solution we have not yet seen."
His principal goal, he said, was to listen.
“Tomorrow I'll have a chance to hear from [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], to get a sense from them, how do they see this process moving forward. What are the possibilities and what are the constraints, and how can the United States be helpful."
In response to another question, regarding any regrets Obama may feel about missed opportunities for peace in his first term, the president conceded that there may have been things he could have done better. But he added that the process is a difficult one.
“It's been lingering for over six decades, and the parties involved have some profound interests that you can't spin, you can't smooth over, and it is a hard slog to work through all of these issues," he said.
Herzog, who has known Kerry for years, said the secretary of state is “very intelligent, has lots of diplomatic experience, is confident, and is passionate about Israeli-Palestinian peace." He said Kerry believed that no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make it “even more difficult to take care of other things."
Echoing another statement made by the president, Paul Hirschson, the deputy spokesman of Israel's Foreign Ministry, said, "this is a tough time in Middle East history. The Arab Spring holds incredible promise and great danger, both.”
In his estimation, the success or failure of Kerry's initiative will depend entirely on the Palestinians' agreement to re-enter peace negotiations or not. And that, he said, depends on whether their goal has changed from "the goal of getting rid of us" to the aim "of establishing their own self-run state."
That, he said, is the floating question.
A man known to be close to Netanyahu, Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to the United Nations, said that Israel was happy to return to the negotiating table but was hampered by "Palestinian preconditions" it could not accept, such as the demand "for a return to 1967 borders, which were never international borders but were from the beginning merely an armistice line," and would again leave Israel with indefensible frontiers.
Gold dismissed Palestinian claims about Israel's expanding West Bank settlements being the principal impediment to to negotiations — and peace — saying Israel "is only trying to manage natural growth of settlements, without any new lands being involved."