Obama: May Be Time For A Pause In Mideast Peace Talks

After a breakdown in talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, President Obama said it may be time to take a step back from peace talks. An agreement now seems very far off.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The Obama administration's recent efforts to try to steer Israel and the Palestinians into a lasting peace accord have failed. President Obama isn't giving up but as he acknowledges, it may be time for a pause. He says Israelis and Palestinians have both taken unhelpful steps in recent weeks, and neither side looks ready to compromise. This is a major setback for Secretary of State John Kerry, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Secretary Kerry brought Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to the State Department last year, he gave them nine months to agree on a long-elusive peace agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: While I understand the skepticism, I don't share it. And I don't think we have time for it.

KELEMEN: Kerry's deadline, April 29, is fast approaching, and talks have broken off. President Obama said this week there's only one door, and that's for the two parties to get together and make difficult compromises.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to encourage them to walk through that door. Do I expect that they will walk through that door next week, next month, or even in the course of the next six months? No.

KELEMEN: Kerry says he'll never give up his hopes for peace. A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, says he hopes Kerry has a Plan B.

DANIEL KURTZER: Given the investment of time and energy of the secretary of state, he can't just walk away, at this point. And on the other hand, there's not much to play with. It suggests that the Plan B that they have been avoiding thinking about ought to be thought about pretty quickly.

KELEMEN: Israelis and Palestinians are blaming each other for the impasse, and both have threatened to take steps in retaliation, says Kurtzer, who teaches at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

KURTZER: It's going to be a little bit of preventive diplomacy now. So Kerry, having tried the creative, forward-looking diplomacy, has now got to shift gears a little bit just to make sure it doesn't really just fall over the edge.

KELEMEN: Kurtzer doesn't expect a new spike in violence, but says Palestinians and their supporters abroad could pursue their boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. And Israel could withhold Palestinian tax revenue. Robert Danin, of the Council on Foreign Relations, hopes the gains in recent years won't be undermined.

ROBERT DANIN: No one has an interest now in seeing the Palestinian authority go through economic hardship and, indeed, a potential collapse. So we need to put a floor under where things stand now and try to build up from that.

KELEMEN: The peace process, Danin says, never really dies. But it does go into moribund periods when the U.S. has to do maintenance work.

DANIN: We may shift into a bit of a defensive crouch for some time, but we're going to be in the game.

KELEMEN: Not everyone wants the U.S. to be on the defense, though. Jeremy Ben-Ami, who runs the pro-peace advocacy group J Street, says it's time for the U.S. to rethink its role.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: The traditional role of simply inviting the parties into a room and offering our services to facilitate the talks seems to be a dead-end.

KELEMEN: So J Street is encouraging the U.S. to put a framework agreement on the table to spark a debate about how to draw borders and resolve the other final status issues between the Palestinians and Israelis.

BEN-AMI: If they are serious, then they can say yes to that framework. And if they say no, then it is clear they are not serious in the eyes of the world about pursuing diplomacy and pursuing an end of this conflict.

KELEMEN: There are no indications that Secretary Kerry will take that route. His spokesperson says peace talks are in a holding period now, and the parties need to decide what happens next.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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