There was a limit to U.S. efforts if the parties themselves were
unwilling to move forward, Kerry said during a visit to Morocco
after a week of setbacks.
"This is not an open-ended effort, it never has been. It is reality
check time, and we intend to evaluate precisely what the next steps
will be," Kerry said, adding he would return to Washington on Friday
to consult with the Obama administration.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are likely to meet on Sunday,
together with U.S. envoy Martin Indyk, to discuss a possible way
forward, a source familiar with the talks said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that President
Barack Obama shared Kerry's frustration over "unhelpful" actions by
both sides and the two men would discuss the path forward in the
eight-month-old talks after the secretary of state's return to
Kerry's decision to declare a timeout could be an attempt to
pressure Israel and the Palestinians to soften their entrenched
positions but, should that fail, it might mark the beginning of the
end for his signature diplomatic initiative.
By stepping away for now, Kerry is reminding the parties that he can
ill-afford to focus endlessly on a fruitless Middle East peace
process when other pressing international issues like the crisis in
Ukraine demand more of this attention.
Abandoning the peace effort, however, also has its risks. It could
deal another blow to Obama's credibility in the Middle East, where
he already faces criticism for a tepid response to Syria's civil war
and to the military's takeover in Egypt.
"There's tremendous upheaval in the region and internationally right
now. Do you want to add to it?" asked Dennis Ross, Obama's former
top Middle East adviser. "We don't need to see something we've been
investing in collapse."
The current phase of the Middle East peace process is not over, and
it has broken down due to "unilateral steps" by both sides, Earnest
"It's time for the Israeli leaders and the leaders of the
Palestinian people to spend some time considering their options at
this point," he told reporters.
The negotiations were catapulted into crisis at the weekend when
Israel refused to act on a previously agreed release of Palestinian
prisoners unless it had assurances the Palestinians would continue
talks beyond an initial end-April deadline.
Kerry flew to Jerusalem to try to find a solution. Just as he
believed a convoluted deal was within reach, Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas signed 15 international treaties, making clear he was
ready to beat a unilateral path to world bodies unless he saw more
movement from the Israelis.
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A senior Palestinian official, Nabil Shaath, told Reuters that Abbas
had not intended to upset Kerry, but rather to shine a spotlight on
Israel's failure to release the prisoners.
"I think (Kerry) will return because we have not abandoned the
process," said the veteran negotiator, speaking in Ramallah, the
Palestinians' administrative capital in the West Bank.
"We will continue these negotiations as we agreed, and I wish for
once that America's patience runs out — with Israel and not the
Palestinians," he said.
With each side looking to blame the other for the impasse, Israel's
centrist finance minister, Yair Lapid, said he questioned whether
Abbas wanted a deal, pointing to a lengthy list of Palestinian
demands published on Maan news agency.
These included lifting a blockade on the Gaza Strip, and freeing a
group of high-profile prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, jailed
a decade ago over a spate of suicide bombings.
"(Abbas) should know that at this point in time his demands are
working against him. No Israeli will negotiate with him at any
price," said Lapid, one of the more moderate voices within Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist coalition.
Kerry has spent much of his first year as America's top diplomat
invested in the Middle East peace process, and has visited the
region more than a dozen times.
He broke off twice from his current 12-day trip in Europe and the
Middle East to see Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to
salvage the peace negotiations.
The talks have struggled from the start, stalling over Palestinian
opposition to Israel's demand that it be recognized as a Jewish
state, and over the issue of fast-growing Israeli settlements in the
occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Palestinians want an independent state in Gaza, the West Bank and
East Jerusalem — lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war. While all
parties say negotiations are the best path to peace, Palestinians
say they may eventually resort to international bodies to force
Israel to make concessions.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Matt
Spetalnick in Washington and Noah Browning in Ramallah; Writing by
Patrick Markey, Crispian Balmer and Matt Spetalnick; editing by Tom Heneghan, Jason Szep and Mohammad Zargham)
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