Building Pressure May Mean Progress In Israeli Peace Talks

As political sparring has gotten increasingly nasty in Israel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has found himself caught in the crossfire for his role in the peace talks. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki points to this criticism as a sign that Israeli and Palestinian sides are getting down to the painful details. Neither side wants to be labeled as the one to end negotiations, but outsiders are nevertheless striving to exert diplomatic and financial pressure in order to ensure talks continue. Some say that this pressure alone may get a framework for peace signed.

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There is a fake John Kerry wandering around Jerusalem these days. He stars in several satirical videos criticizing the U.S. effort to negotiate a peace agreement between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The State Department suggests it is just the latest sign that Kerry has put real pressure on Israel to move toward a peace deal. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: John Kerry, the satire star, is skinny with a big poof of grey hair. The theme of the videos, he doesn't understand the conflict he's trying to solve. Here is the actor playing Kerry, talking about Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTFIED MAN: We must realize that it's holy to all religions: Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddists, Klingons and hobbits.

HARRIS: Cut to a religious Jewish woman addressing the fake secretary of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think you should go home where you belong and stay there.

HARRIS: The videos are produced by the Yesha Council, representing Jewish families who live in settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Dani Dayan is now the council's chief foreign envoy.

DANI DAYAN: We are not pressuring anyone. We are convincing. We are lobbying. We are persuading.

HARRIS: He says the real aim of these videos and a larger Hebrew ad campaign is to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stay tough on keeping West Bank settlements, not dividing Jerusalem, and maintaining Israeli troops inside parts of any new Palestinian state.

DAYAN: As long as he doesn't deviate from those lines, he is in line with established Israeli policies and safeguarding Israeli interests.

HARRIS: But it is Kerry who served as a flashpoint in Israeli politics lately. At a recent conference in Munich, Kerry mentioned, quote, "talk of boycotts" against Israel as potential fallout if peace talks fail. Israel's economy minister accused Kerry of amplifying boycott calls from Europe and elsewhere. Prime Minister Netanyahu said a boycott would fail anyway. Secretary Kerry spokesperson Jen Psaki said the secretary saw the comments as attacks on the peace process itself.

JEN PSAKI: I think his view is that some of this is a sign that the heat is on and we're getting down to the difficult issues.

HARRIS: Israeli analyst Alon Miel(ph) agrees, and he says the U.S. is bringing much of that pressure even just by presenting a framework agreement for extending talks, which Kerry plans to do soon.

ALON MIEL: This is pressure because no one of the sides is going to like this paper, but especially if it will be backed by the rest of the international community. Sides cannot reject it.

HARRIS: There has been talk of Western countries reducing financial support for the Palestinian Authority if its leaders walk away from peace talks. But Palestinian politician Abdullah Abdullah dismisses this threat as part of the art of negotiation. He says the U.S. isn't yet putting any real pressure on Israel.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: If we were to say a word of advice to Mr. Kerry, we would tell him that there are precedents in American-Israeli relationship since the '50s, when there is determination on the part of the Americans, they bring the Israelis to their senses.

HARRIS: Already splits are showing in Netanyahu's coalition government. Naftali Bennett, the leader of a key coalition partner, threatened to quit the government if he doesn't like the anticipated U.S. framework. Hilik Bar with Israel's opposition Labor Party says if Bennett really gave up power, that would be significant.

HILIK BAR: If Bennett will reach this point, it will mean necessarily that he will understand that something is really happening toward peace and this will be the point that the Labor Party will consider to join Netanyahu government, even without portfolio just to make it happen.

HARRIS: Both sides have promised to put any final agreement to voters. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki says Palestinians would not blame Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing to sign a bad deal.

KHALIL SHIKAKI: There is no pressure from public opinion on Abbas to reach any agreement. The pressure comes only from the desire to end occupation and build a state.

HARRIS: If negotiations don't work, Palestinians say they'll go back to the United Nations to pursue further recognition. Israeli think tank experts are also already preparing a plan B. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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