At the exact moment that US President Barack Obama landed in Israel on Wednesday, both Palestinians and Israelis announced that they were establishing new outposts.
The Palestinians pitched tents in E1 between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim, saying it was a new neighbourhood in the area they call Baab el Shams. Simultaneously, the Gush Etzion Council broke ground in Karmei Tzur, calling the new neighbourhood of caravans “The Rock of Jonathan”, after US spy Jonathan Pollard.
The near simultaneous announcements are only a microcosm of the challenges that face Mr Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they attempt to look anew at the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While both Washington and Jerusalem said that Mr Obama’s trip was due to focus on Iran, Syria and the turbulence of the Middle East [Mr Obama did not mention the Palestinians in his speech on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion airport], something is definitely brewing under the surface regarding the Palestinian issue.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in advance of Mr Obama and met Mr Netanyahu’s envoy to the Palestinians, Itzhak Molcho. It was widely known that Mr Kerry would accompany Mr Obama on his trip to Israel, Ramallah, and Jordan, but it came as some surprise when the US announced that Mr Kerry would be sticking around after Mr Obama left. He will return to Israel from Jordan for another round of talks with Mr Netanyahu on Saturday night.
Why Mr Obama would want to throw his new Secretary of State into the quicksand that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so soon, perhaps only Mr Obama and Mr Kerry know. But in Jerusalem, officials were not too happy with the news. A government source said that while Mr Obama’s trip was focused on a charm offensive, Mr Kerry would be the one doing the plain talking. In other words, Mr Obama was the carrot, and Mr Kerry was the stick.
Some reports in the Israeli newspapers said that Mr Kerry would be looking to revive the Arab peace initiative — and there were full-page adverts, in those same newspapers, urging Mr Netanyahu to adopt the plan.
If that really is Mr Kerry’s intention, he will find it hard to convince any Israeli prime minister to make serious concessions to the Palestinians while the sands of the Middle East are shifting so violently.
Mr Kerry might also find some of the Arab states, which said they would sign up to the initiative, missing, or busy with their own internal implosions. It is more likely that Mr Kerry is trying to revive the moribund “peace process” as an end in and of itself. The US has bigger fish to fry in Asia, but it does not want things in the Middle East getting much worse.
If, having coaxed the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table and got them to offer confidence-building measures, the sides play ball, Mr Kerry can notch a small first victory.
But Mr Kerry may have to settle for baby steps. Mr Netanyahu has just formed a new government heavy with one-staters. It is unlikely that he will be willing and able to instigate a settlement freeze across the West Bank. He has already done that once, and PA President Abbas stayed away.
Mr Kerry might have more luck in Ramallah, but even there, the Palestinians are deeply disappointed with what they see as Mr Obama’s “pro-Israel visit.” If Mr Kerry wants to make any headway with the peace talks, carrying a large stick might not be the best way to start. He might want to try bread sticks instead.