WASHINGTON – With Mideast peace talks on the verge of collapse, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared Friday that "it's reality check time" on whether an agreement can be reached anytime soon after decades of bitterness between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The U.S. will re-evaluate its role as mediator, he said.
It was Kerry's most pessimistic take yet on the peace effort after nearly nine months of frustrating talks with little progress to show.
Kerry made clear that his push for peace is not yet over, and he said both sides claim to want to continue negotiating. But he also said that continuing setbacks in the process – culminating this week with tit-for-tat moves by Israeli and Palestinian officials that have upended good-faith bargaining – could force the U.S. to shift focus to other crises where Washington might have more success.
"We have an enormous amount on the plate," Kerry told reporters during a diplomatic visit to Rabat, Morocco, the end of a marathon trip that saw him jumping back and forth between Israel, Ramallah and Europe. He noted that the U.S. is also dealing with challenges in Ukraine, Iran and Syria, and he said, "There are limits to the amount of time and effort the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward."
The nine months of talks are scheduled to end April 29, and Kerry has been pressing to have them continue through much of the rest of the year. "But we're not going to sit here indefinitely," he said. "So it's reality check time, and we intend to evaluate precisely what the next steps will be."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he "would anticipate that a conversation with the president is in the near future."
Kerry has spent major portions of his 14 months as secretary of state pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian agreement despite the seemingly long odds. A collapse of the talks could be a diplomatic embarrassment for him and the administration – and a danger in the region as well.
Failed efforts in the past have led to major bouts of violence. On Friday, Palestinians fired rockets at Israel, which responded with warplanes attacking military targets in the Gaza Strip.
Uzi Rabi, director of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said it's doubtful the two sides will broker a final peace agreement, given years of bitterness and sharp differences over borders, claims to Jerusalem and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. But he said the talks should continue – if only to ward off a new Palestinian uprising against Israelis that would surely lead to a surge in violence.
"I think the Americans know that" the talks ultimately will fail, Rabi said. "So why are they going on? Because it's much better to talk than something which is much more problematic, like intifada." Intifada is the Arabic term for past Palestinian uprisings against Israel. The last one began in 2000, and more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in several years of fighting.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed hope Friday the talks would continue. But, he said, Palestinian leaders do not feel bound to follow Kerry's ground rules for negotiating if Israel fails to live up to its own commitments.
"We don't have anything to lose," Erekat said, after the moves and countermoves that Israeli and Palestinian officials have undertaken over the past week that have left the negotiations on life support.
Already lacking signs of progress, the peace process was put into serious jeopardy last weekend when Israel refused to release a group of Palestinian prisoners it had said last summer it would free as part of the agreement to resume talks that had been stalled since 2011.
U.S. diplomats then offered the unprecedented possibility of releasing convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for selling U.S. military secrets to Israel, as incentive for Israel to release the prisoners. Every president since Ronald Reagan has refused Israel's request to release Pollard.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas retaliated by signing 15 United Nations treaties and conventions to give Palestinians greater international recognition – a step his side initially pledged not to undertake while the peace talks were continuing. The U.S. has supported statehood for the Palestinians but wants them to accomplish it through the peace process rather than by unilateral actions.
"Obviously it's a very difficult moment and in a sense not surprising because of the actions taken over the past several days by both parties," said former Sen. George Mitchell, who led peace negotiations for the Obama administration for more than two years ending in 2011.
Making clear he is no longer privy to the closely held talks, Mitchell said the Obama administration "can and should" try again to broker a peace agreement before the next U.S. presidential election in 2016. He said, "I don't think it can be left for that period of time."
Kerry's comments on Friday signaled that he and his team would be taking a step back from the peace process to test Israeli and Palestinian intentions. Abbas and Netanyahu must lead and make difficult compromises for the talks to have a chance for success, he said.
"It is regrettable that in the last few days both sides have taken steps that are not helpful and that's evident to everybody," he said.
U.S., Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are supposed to meet again on Sunday, according to people familiar with the talks.