Kerry the lone optimist in Middle East peace talks, say Israelis

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Published January 09, 2014

| FoxNews.com

Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be the only optimistic one left at the table as the U.S. attempts yet again to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The former senator’s declaration that a deal that has eluded previous administrations is “not mission impossible” comes as Israel all but admits going through the motions and Palestinian militants continue to mount attacks.

“What we see with both sides is the fear that at the end of the process they will be blamed by the U.S. for the collapse of the talks,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, told FoxNews.com

Details of a possible deal being cobbled together as Kerry shuttles between Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have not yet been made public. But few in Israel expect any groundbreaking proposal, especially amid a surge in violent attacks launched from the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a joint-press conference with Kerry last week, questioned the commitment to peace of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

“How can he [Abbas] say that he stands against terrorism when he embraces the perpetrators of terrorism and embraces them as heroes?” Netanyahu thundered. “To glorify the murderers of innocent women and men as heroes is an outrage.”

Netanyahu was referring to another round of jubilant street parties that greeted the late-December release of 26 more Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails, a move that was reportedly encouraged by Kerry as a gesture of goodwill. The release of the latest batch of killers has not gone down well with many Israelis across the political spectrum and appears to have done little, if anything, to bring the two sides closer together.

“Netanyahu and his group of advisers decided that this [the prisoner release] was the least costly gesture we can afford,” Inbar said. “It was the result of being willing to appear not to be intransigent. I think everybody accepted this was a serious Israeli concession as a gesture of good faith.”

Absent from the talks is any real U.S. pressure on either party, said Inbar. Israel has no reason to fear losing the U.S. support in the United Nations and the Obama administration just authorized more than $400 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority, noted Inbar.

The obstacles to peace remain unchanged from past efforts to hammer out a deal. Israel questions how Palestinians can continue to fire rockets into civilian neighborhoods, and Palestinians say Israel is undermining the talks by continuing to build on disputed land in the West Bank.

On Wednesday, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for President Abbas, said that every time Kerry tries to advance the peace process, “Israel seeks to destroy these efforts through its decisions and its ongoing settlement activities.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has resurrected the idea of a land swap, transferring 10 northern towns that are home to 300,000 Israeli Arabs to Palestinian control in return for a similar area of land on the West Bank being permanently annexed to Israel. The idea has been met with general dismay by residents of Umm-El –Fahm, the biggest Arab town in the proposed swap, a town with a history of anti-Israel sentiment.

“[We] are unwilling to act as pawns in the service of Liberman and the Israeli right,” read a statement from Umm-El-Fahm’s City Council. “We are the children of this land. We inherited it from our ancestors, and nobody can speak or negotiate on our behalf in any future agreement with the Palestinians.”

While Kerry has yet to comment publicly on Liberman’s proposal, Efraim Inbar thinks the Americans “might be taking it seriously.”

“I don’t think there is a legal problem because any state has the right to give up some of its territory,” he said. “It’s very ironic to hear Arabs saying they want to remain in a Jewish state. The polls show they don’t want to be part of a Palestinian state -- and with good reason. They’re not stupid. It’s not such a great thing to be a Palestinian citizen.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com

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