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Exasperated Kerry urges ‘reality check’ for Israelis and Palestinians

Secretary of state suggests U.S. will rethink its role in Middle East negotiations

The Obama administration will re-evaluate its role in mediating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, in light of the apparent collapse of his latest negotiation effort.

A visibly downbeat Kerry, who has spent the better part of his 14-month tenure trying to cajole the parties into agreement on a framework for final-status negotiations, stopped short of declaring the peace process dead. But in his most pessimistic assessment of the situation since talks began last summer — amid widespread skepticism — Kerry made clear his patience was near exhausted. With his April 29 deadline for a framework agreement fast approaching, he said it was time for a “reality check."

"It is regrettable that in the last few days both sides have taken steps that are not helpful, and that's evident to everybody," the secretary of state said, referring to Israel's failure to release a fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ formal application to join 15 international treaties.

Speaking to reporters in Rabat before traveling to Casablanca for a meeting with Morocco's king, Kerry said the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks could not continue to occupy so much of his time if the Israelis and Palestinians were unable to take even minor steps toward making the negotiations successful. He noted there were other pressing matters, such as the crises in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the Iran nuclear talks, that demand attention.

"Clearly we have an enormous amount on the plate," Kerry said. "There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unable to take constructive steps. We are going to evaluate very carefully exactly where this is and where it might possibly be able to go."

Kerry has led the administration's most recent effort to revive the long-stalled peace process, and he spent the past 12 days furiously shuttling between the parties in the hope of keeping the talks alive. If the talks do collapse, it could be seen as a foreign policy failure for the administration — although the current effort was simply the latest attempt to conclude a peace process that began 21 years ago

In its desperation to keep the talks on track, the Obama administration even considered the unprecedented step of releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for selling U.S. military secrets to Israel, as an inducement to get Israel to release a small number of Palestinian prisoners. Every president since Ronald Reagan has refused Israel's request to release Pollard.

Over the past several weeks, the modest goal of a framework accord was scaled down even further as Kerry and his team focused on getting the two sides to merely agree to extend the time frame for the talks. That aim was put into serious jeopardy when Israel over the weekend refused to release a group of Palestinian prisoners it had said it would free as part of the agreement to resume the talks.

But the stalemate on the question of prisoners simply highlighted the more fundamental problem that the Israeli government and Palestinian leadership remain too far apart on the fundamental issues — such as where to draw the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, security arrangements and the fate of Palestinian refugees — on which they'd have to reach agreement in order to resolve the conflict. 

As Kerry spoke, hundreds of Palestinians rallied in the West Bank near Ofer Prison, according to Israeli media, in an apparent protest of Israel’s refusal to release more Palestinian prisoners — and possibly also a portent of things to come. 

Wire services

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