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In Rubble Of Middle East Peace Talks, Kerry Seeks Way Forward


This is a challenging time for Secretary of State John Kerry. His Middle East peace process has collapsed. He's also taking a lot of heat for suggesting that Israel could become an apartheid state if it doesn't negotiate with the Palestinians on two states for two peoples. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how Kerry is trying to dig out.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kerry doesn't call this a failure and his spokesperson says he has no regrets about the time he put into peace talks. The secretary told reporters on his trip to Africa today the talks made progress before they collapsed.

JOHN KERRY: What has not been laid out publically and what I will do at some appropriate moment of time is make clear to everybody the progress that was made. These eight months plus were not without significant progress in certain areas and I don't think anybody wants to lose that progress.

KELEMEN: Now, he says, it's time for Israelis and Palestinians to reflect. Kerry himself has some reflecting to do. He put out a statement of regret this week after he was quoted as saying there was a danger of Israel becoming an apartheid state, and in this conflict, words are critically important, says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who's now vice president of the Wilson Center.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Nothing was gained by that comment. It was inappropriate. It was unwise and it was ill-timed.

KELEMEN: Miller says this has been a problem with Kerry all along. He says the secretary made it seem like this was the last chance for peace, warning of the potential for renewed violence and a budding boycott movement against Israel, so the collapse of the peace process is a personal blow to Kerry's credibility.

MILLER: Is it fatal? No, because the reality is, like rock 'n' roll, the peace process is never really going to die and it's not going to die and Kerry will be back to it because Israelis and Palestinians have a proximity problem. They're literally living on top of one another and there's no status quo.

KELEMEN: Now, Miller says the U.S. will have to wait to see what the Israelis do and whether Palestinians move ahead with their plans to form a unity government with the militant group Hamas. He says U.S. options aren't great.

MILLER: They may well decided in 2015 to make another push at this or just to lay out what the United States believes are the best and most realistic parameters for resolving the conflict.

KELEMEN: Others have doubts that putting a plan on the table will do much. Brian Katulis is with the Center for American Progress.

BRIAN KATULIS: I mean, it's become cliche, but it's true. We can't want it more than they do.

KELEMEN: And he says Kerry has a lot of other issues on his plate from Syria to Ukraine.

KATULIS: Kerry's going to redeploy and shift his efforts to other areas without dropping this completely from the agenda. But to me, the most interesting question now is not what the secretary of state does, it's what the parties do in the region.

KELEMEN: The odds were always long for Kerry's peace efforts, says Tamara Wittes who runs the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

TAMARA WITTES: The challenge for this peace process from the beginning has been extremely constrained domestic politics, both in Israeli society and in Palestinian society.

KELEMEN: Just look at the reaction to the apartheid statement this week. Israel's deputy defense minister wrote an op-ed saying it was one of many erroneous statements by Kerry and a sign that the U.S. was putting a gun to Israel's head. Israel's ambassador here says those comments about Kerry do not reflect the views of the Israeli government. Wittes says this all misses the point.

WITTES: It's unfortunate that that set of comments became a distraction for so many people from reckoning with the really difficult challenge of what Israel's future path will be if it doesn't have a two state agreement with the Palestinians.

KELEMEN: Secretary Kerry will have a bit of a break this week as he turns his attention to conflicts in Africa.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.