TEL AVIV, Israel - If the United States fails in its latest attempt to forge an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it won’t be because John Kerry did not try hard enough.
Twice in one week, Barack Obama's secretary of state has excused himself from urgent diplomacy in Europe to rush to the Holy Land to try to keep the two sides talking here. And it isn't just the hours he’s putting in. Kerry also tabled an extraordinary offer -- to release a man convicted of spying on the United States.
Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew, was working for the U.S. Navy when he began passing classified information to his Israeli handlers. He was convicted of espionage in 1985 and has been in prison in the United States ever since. Israel has asked many times that Pollard be released, and now Kerry is prepared to grant that request, as long as Israel agrees to take steps which will see the peace talks continue.
Back in August, Kerry persuaded Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to start talking again.
To demonstrate the seriousness of his intent, he set a nine-month timetable for an agreement to be reached. That timetable expires at the end of this month, and with no sign of any agreement on any of the big issues, the effort looks on the brink of collapse. His fear is that the Palestinians will abandon the process altogether and take their grievances against Israel to the International Criminal Court.
So Kerry’s ambitions have shrunk from achieving a so-called framework agreement, to an extension of the current negotiations. According to reports, he’s now hoping that the Palestinians will stay at the table into next year, as long as Israel honors its commitment to release 26 long-term Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails, plus another 400 Palestinian detainees.
Israel is also reported to have agreed to a partial suspension of settlement construction in the West Bank, while the talks go on. In return for this, the Israelis welcome home Pollard and the Palestinians would have to agree not to take the international route.
In response to Israel’s delay in releasing prisoners, President Mahmoud Abbas late Tuesday took the first steps down that road. Live on TV, he started signing up to international agreements
Among them, according to officials, was a key text of the Geneva Conventions. Palestinians hope these agreements on international law on the conduct of war and occupation will give them a strong basis to go to the International Criminal Court and lodge complaints against Israel for its occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war -- territory that they want for their state.
It might just be brinkmanship, but it’s the start of an attempt to gain the benefits of statehood outside the U.S.-sponsored talks process, which has so far completely failed to deliver a Palestinian state.
The U.S. has long opposed such moves and Kerry reportedly cancelled a planned visit to Ramallah Wednesday as a result.
True to form, Kerry kept the door open to negotiations despite Abbas' surprise move, and made clear that at least until the end of the month, Abbas would stay at the negotiating table.
"The important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward," he said from Brussels. But decisions this week on both sides now threaten to undo months of his work.
Reuters contributed to this report.