American Secretary of State John Kerry sounded hopeful this week when he tried to relaunch the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians — but it seems that so far he has only succeeded in highlighting the distance between the two sides and major differences within the Israeli cabinet.
Mr Kerry, who was on a 48-hour visit to the region earlier this week to Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has been trying to capitalise on US President Barack Obama’s successful visit to Israel three weeks ago.
In an upbeat address to American diplomatic staff in Jerusalem, he said that while the Israel-Palestine conflict is “the biggest, the longest, the most complicated and the most vexing” of global conflicts, he would not be back for his “multiple-whatever-umpteenth trip” if he did not believe that America could bring the sides together and encourage them to find a peaceful resolution to their disputes.
In the absence of a foreign minister, there is no clear Israeli representative now leading the government’s diplomatic effort. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has also been appointed to lead negotiations with the Palestinian Authority but she is to be accompanied in all her meetings by Mr Netanyahu’s personal representative and has no mandate to make any offers to the Palestinian side without the authorisation of a cabinet committee.
The divisions within the government were on show this week when Ms Livni was quoted by Maariv newspaper saying that Israel would not require a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state before substantial negotiations, a pre-condition often mentioned by the previous Netanyahu government.
Ms Livni did not confirm or deny the report but senior Likud politicians criticised her and Mr Netanyahu, in his meeting with Mr Kerry, stressed that Israel was interested first in discussing with the Palestinians “questions of recognition and security”.
In the meeting however, Mr Netanyahu did say that he was “determined not only to resume the peace process with the Palestinians, but to make a serious effort to end this conflict once and for all”.
But by highlighting the issues of “recognition and security” as a priority, Mr Netanyahu was also rejecting the Palestinian demand that Mr Kerry had heard the previous day in Ramallah — that Israel present a map containing the future borders between it and a Palestinian state as a condition for talks.
With no sign right now of a way to bridge the gap between the two sides, before leaving Israel for a G8 conference in London and in his final media briefing, Mr Kerry was left to dwell on a new economic plan for the PA in the West Bank, which was just about the only thing the two sides agreed upon. Mr Kerry ruefully admitted that all parties “have homework to do”.
While Mr Kerry is no doubt earnest in his intention to renew talks, there was a sense of dislocation about the talks this week as the main focus both within Israel, around the region and in Washington, was on other matters.
The new Israeli government is currently gearing up to face two major domestic challenges: a new state budget, which is expected to deeply slash social spending, and the controversial new national-service law, which is meant to set a legal framework for the drafting of yeshivah students.
Meanwhile, the Israel-Palestine conflict is on the back-burner in the wider Middle East, where the attention is mainly on the ongoing political crisis and violent demonstrations in Egypt and the continuing implosion of civil war-torn Syria.
Neither is it clear when Mr Kerry will be able to return to Jerusalem and Ramallah, as he will have to direct his attentions towards the threat of war on the Korean peninsula.