Secretary of State John Kerry waded again into the faltering Israeli-Palestinian dialogue Wednesday, saying he was optimistic that tensions and difficulties could be overcome – even as both sides traded barbs about who is to blame for the current poor state of negotiations.
"As in any negotiation there will be moments of up and moments of down," Kerry told Palestinians in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and before seeing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "But ... we are determined to try to bring lasting peace to this region."
However, the goal of reaching a peace deal within nine months appears in jeopardy. After being launched with great fanfare, the negotiations quickly ran into trouble with no visible signs of progress and both sides reverting to a pattern of finger-pointing.
The talks are set to end in April, and the current deadlock has raised speculation that the United States may need to step up its involvement and present its own blueprint for peace early next year – or perhaps lower expectations and pursue a limited interim agreement.
Kerry and his aides have refused to discuss such an option, insisting instead that the goal of the talks remains a comprehensive peace pact.
"We are convinced that despite the difficulties, both leaders, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, are also determined to work toward this goal," Kerry said.
Despite Kerry’s comments, tension between the two sides was running high and on clear display after the Palestinians said a secret negotiating session on Tuesday broke down in an acrimonious dispute over Israeli settlement construction.
The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. They say they are willing to adjust those borders to allow Israel to keep some West Bank settlements as part of a "land swap." Netanyahu opposes a withdrawal to Israel's pre-1967 lines, saying such borders would be indefensible.
The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem territories are considered illegal by most countries. Israel cites historical and biblical links to the areas – where about 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians – as justification for the settlements.
In a separate development, Netanyahu said former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will return to the cabinet after his acquittal in a corruption trial Wednesday. The right-wing powerbroker is a hardliner on the talks with the Palestinians.
The decision handed the 55-year-old Lieberman, an ally and sometime rival of Netanyahu, a resounding victory in a case that had threatened to derail his political career and reshape the makeup of the coalition government. Instead, he could return to the political arena stronger than ever.
"This chapter is behind me. And I am focusing on the challenges ahead, and there are plenty of challenges," the triumphant Lieberman said outside the courtroom after the verdict.
Also on Wednesday, Kerry unveiled $75 million in new aid to Palestinians, aimed at building roads, schools and health clinics.
The money adds to $25 million pledged by the United States in September, bringing the total U.S. contribution for the West Bank infrastructure projects to some $100 million.
In addition Germany is to put up $10 million toward about 200 projects being identified by the Palestinian Authority, which will cost a total of about $50 million.
All the projects are due to start within the next six months.
One of the projects will be to improve three kilometrs (two miles) of road in Bethlehem, where according to Christian tradition Jesus was born in a manger.
The aim of the project was to "enhance travel safety, reduce traveler times and promote economic development and tourism," Kerry said, adding that the projects would allow better movement of "tourists and pilgrims to this holy place."