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Kerry’s Path Steepens in Israeli-Palestinian Talks

Written by Moran Azoulay Kerry’s Path Steepens in Israeli-Palestinian Talks By MARK LANDLER and JODI RUDOREN The New York Times, November 6, 2013 BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Secretary of State John Kerry’s uphill path to a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians seemed ever steeper on Wednesday, as the two sides clashed bitterly over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while the exoneration of a right-wing Israeli politician threatened to inject a volatile element into the talks. The developments could portend a harder line from Israel toward the Palestinians, and increase the pressure on Mr. Kerry to play a more muscular mediating role, three months after his intense personal campaign lured the adversaries back to negotiations after years of impasse. On Wednesday, Mr. Kerry pressed Israel more forcefully than he had before to limit new construction of settlements “in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively.” But his own effort to cool temperatures came amid growing signs of a poisoned atmosphere, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel bluntly accusing the Palestinian leadership of fomenting distrust and evading difficult decisions. The acquittal of Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister who is among Israel’s most powerful and polarizing politicians, of corruption charges could further complicate matters. Mr. Lieberman is an outspoken nationalist and a West Bank settler, though his views on the peace process are not sharply different from Mr. Netanyahu’s. But his triumphant return to power — likely again as foreign minister — makes Mr. Lieberman an unpredictable force. Mr. Kerry, who came to Jerusalem to recapture the initiative in the moribund talks, struggled to keep them from slipping into a familiar cycle of recrimination on Wednesday. Under pressure from President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, he declared that thePalestinians had not accepted continued building in settlements as an Israeli condition for restarting talks, despite what Israeli leaders had indicated. “That is not to say that they weren’t aware, or we weren’t aware, that there would be construction,” Mr. Kerry said after meeting with Mr. Abbas in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. He emphasized that the United States considers the settlements to be “illegitimate.” But hours before in Jerusalem, Mr. Kerry had sat stone-faced as Mr. Netanyahu said he was concerned about the prospect for progress in the talks “because I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are necessary to make a genuine peace.” The dispute over settlements, officials said, led to a shouting match between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on Tuesday at their 16th session, as Mr. Kerry arrived here. While increasing expressions of outrage, particularly by the Palestinians, may be as much an effort to appease constituents as a reflection of what is happening at the negotiating table, the need to show steadfastness on both sides is a hint of the hurdles Mr. Kerry faces. Add to that delicate and complex equation Mr. Lieberman, 55, an immigrant from the Soviet Union and a populist hard-liner who has alienated international diplomats with undiplomatic outbursts and been both an important partner and an occasional rival to Mr. Netanyahu. Although he will not play a direct role in the peace talks even if he returns as foreign minister, he has embarrassed the prime minister by declaring, at inopportune times, that any agreement is decades away and by accusing Mr. Abbas of “diplomatic terrorism.” For Israel’s governing coalition, already deeply fractured over the Palestinian issue, the question now is whether Mr. Lieberman will join those challenging Mr. Netanyahu from the right, making a peace deal even more remote, or shift toward the center to expand his political base for a future campaign to become prime minister. An indication may come at the end of this month when the party he founded in 1999, Yisrael Beiteinu, decides whether to solidify the alliance it forged with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party for this year’s elections and fully merge into a single faction, or break apart and operate independently again. “This is a man who works long-term: he’s not a tactician only, he’s a good strategist,” said Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “I don’t know whether he will split away from Netanyahu and say, ‘I’m the replacement from outside,’ or whether he will say, ‘O.K., I’ll try and support Netanyahu and one day be his successor.’ ” The corruption case against Mr. Lieberman began 17 years ago with sweeping accusations that he had received millions of dollars from international tycoons with business interests in Israel through companies formally led by relatives or friends. But the fraud and breach of trust charges ultimately filed against him were much narrower, focusing on Mr. Lieberman’s support of a new post for an ambassador who had improperly given him confidential information regarding the investigation. A three-judge panel ruled Wednesday that his handling of the matter was “inappropriate” but not criminal. Though staunchly secular, Mr. Lieberman went from the courtroom to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most sacred sites, where he donned a skullcap and offered a prayer. “This chapter is behind me,” he said earlier. “I’m focusing on the challenges that await us — and there are plenty of challenges.” Mr. Netanyahu was among a chorus of politicians offering congratulations, and he is expected to win cabinet and parliamentary approvals for Mr. Lieberman’s reappointment as foreign minister by Monday. “We have been friends for many years,” the prime minister said in a statement. “I am pleased that Avigdor will be coming back to work with me at the cabinet table.” Israeli political analysts said Mr. Lieberman’s return would at least distract Mr. Netanyahu from the peace process as he worked to shore up his political house. Before his meeting with Mr. Kerry on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that the nuclear talks with Iran, which resume Thursday in Geneva, remain his top priority. He reiterated his call for the world to tighten, not ease, sanctions against Iran while the talks proceed, and Mr. Kerry, in turn, repeated his pledge that the West would not make a bad deal with Iran, saying no deal was preferable. Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, said the mounting criticism of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, and the Arab world’s preoccupation with issues other than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only intensified the challenge Mr. Kerry faced. “The sense of urgency is less acute than it was,” said Mr. Rabinovich, who is also a former president of Tel Aviv University. “I’m not saying negotiations are doomed to fail; I’m saying I’m not surprised that there is no progress. It definitely will take more time and will require not just tenacity but also ingenuity on the part of the secretary of state.” Mr. Kerry, standing next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Wednesday afternoon, announced $75 million in American aid to build roads, hospitals and schools in the West Bank, a program intended to create jobs and build Palestinian support for the peace process. Halfway through the first of what may be three days of talks, Mr. Kerry professed to be undaunted. “There are always difficulties, always tensions,” he said. “I’m very confident of our ability to work through them. That’s why I’m here.”

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