(PhatzNewsRoom / CNN Security) — If there is one thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on, it’s that John Kerry doesn’t lack enthusiasm.
Arriving in Israel on Thursday on his fourth trip since taking office, the secretary of state seems determined that shuttle diplomacy will be enough to coax Israelis and Palestinians into restarting long-stalled talks.
Kerry has made it clear the Israeli-Palestinian issue will be the centerpiece of his tenure as America’s top diplomat and hopes solving it will be his legacy.
He has spent more time on this issue than any other, is in almost daily contact with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and speaks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas several times a week.
Kerry is confident he is the man to solve the conflict, now a half-century-old. Kerry feels the decades he has spent working on this issue and longstanding relationships with the regional leaders has earned him the trust needed to hammer home a deal.
But U.S. officials lament that Kerry still acts like a senator – mostly working the issue with input from only a few close aides and leaving the majority of the State Department’s senior staffers out of the loop.
Even with the parties themselves, Kerry has been tight-lipped about his peace plan. But Israeli and Palestinian officials say he has begun to lay out broad strokes on how to get the parties back to the table.
The package Kerry is working on is said to include confidence-building measures by both sides aimed at creating a more fertile climate for talks.
All sides recognize this as a key aspect for the creation of a Palestinian state and Palestinians have long complained that Israeli control over the West Bank, with its military check points and travel restrictions, has been the main impediment to their economic growth.
Arab states are also heavily involved in Kerry’s strategy, who was recently able to persuade the 22-member Arab League to reintroduce a decade-old peace offer to Israel with new incentives to sweeten the deal – a significant development given the absence of peace talks in more than four years.
Neither side doubts Kerry’s good intentions and his clear sense of mission. What is missing is a tangible progress as a result of Kerry’s efforts, and faith those efforts will bear fruit.
More importantly, neither Israelis nor Palestinians have matched Kerry’s enthusiasm with actions that indicate they are serious about renewing the peace process.
Before sitting down with Kerry on Thursday, Netanyahu acknowledged the American’s efforts, telling him, “You’ve been working at it a great deal.”
“It’s something I want. It’s something you want. It’s something I hope the Palestinians want as well,” Netanyahu said. “And we ought to be successful for a simple reason: When there’s a will, we’ll find a way.”
Kerry returned the praise for the Israeli leader, thanking him for the “seriousness” with which he is approaching a possible resumption of talks.
Yet last week Kerry had to phone Netanyahu to voice U.S. concern at Israel’s plan to legalize four unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank.
American officials point to Israeli restraint in recent weeks from issuing new bids for Jewish settlement construction as a gesture to the Palestinians in advance of talks.
But the government continues to approve plans for new homes in certain settlements as part of previous agreements. The Palestinians have said they will not return to the table while Israel continues to build.
They also insist Israel releases Palestinian prisoners and accept the pre-1967 border as the contour of a future Palestinian state before talks can begin.
Israeli officials say Palestinian preconditions call into question Abbas’ seriousness about negotiations.
“The Palestinians are on negative automatic pilot,” one senior Israeli official said. “John Kerry is doing some very good work, and we will be very disappointed if President Abbas doesn’t pick up the ball.”
But Palestinians consider these issues Israeli obligations that go the heart of the mistrust they have for Israeli intensions and unless they are met, talks would be pointless. They say Netanyahu wants negotiations, but is unwilling to make peace.
“What we are staying is give (us) negotiations that have credibility, meaning legality and bring Israel to compliance and we will negotiate,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the PLO, told CNN.
“People see a lot of motion but haven’t seen results yet. Palestinians have been twice bitten by all this motion without any substance without any results. The Palestinians are understandably extremely skeptical because the moment they see the U.S. administration willing to stand-up to Israel and Israeli violations then they will take these steps seriously,” she said.
Palestinian officials say they are working on a “day-after” strategy if Kerry does not meet a June 7 deadline for introducing a proposal for talks. This strategy includes plans to seek membership in key international organizations.
Last September, the Palestinians won recognition from the U.N. General Assembly as a non-member state. This upgraded diplomatic status gives them access to U.N. bodies. Now Israel fears the Palestinians will seek membership in international agencies like the International Criminal Court, where it can press for war crimes charges against Israel.
None of this points to positive prospects for Kerry’s diplomatic efforts. Kerry acknowledged the uphill battle Thursday at his meeting with Netanyahu.
“I know this region well enough to know that there is skepticism; in some corridors, there’s cynicism,” he said. “And there are reasons for it. There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient, but detailed and tenacious, that we can lay out a path ahead that could conceivably surprise people, but certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace.”
Kerry’s words may seem well-worn and cliché to a war-weary region, but they should not be taken for granted.
After years of complaining that the United States was not fully invested in the peace process, Israelis and Palestinians now have an American secretary of state willing to devote considerable time and political will to solving the conflict. It remains to be seen whether the parties will seize upon his determination and do some of the hard work themselves to help him solve it.