Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time all but gone for Kerry to get two-state deal signed

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If Israeli and Palestinian headlines agree on anything, it is that the negotiations U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began brokering last July are running into the sand.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reneged on his promise, as the Palestinians understood it, to free the fourth and last batch of two dozen long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March.

In response President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine spurned America's umpiring and took his campaign for statehood global, earning the first plaudits he has received in years from more radical Palestinian factions, such as Hamas, which have long deemed him feeble.

Kerry, mocked by an Israeli minister as "messianic," momentarily seemed to lose faith in his mission, turning his back on both parties by cancelling another emergency visit.

"It's up to the parties to make decisions," he said.

All this might yet prove to be more theatrical than truly menacing.

Netanyahu and Abbas are jockeying in the weeks still within Kerry's nine-month time frame for talks to end.

Contrary to many headlines, Abbas did not actually go to the UN, but signalled he was only a signature away from doing so. None of the 15-odd international conventions he signed, such as the Geneva ones governing rules of war, actually inducts Palestine into UN bodies. Nor has Netanyahu ruled out freeing the remaining 26 prisoners.

Rather, both are holding out for better deals at the last minute.

Netanyahu wants the Americans to free a Jewish-American spy, Jonathan Pollard, a naval intelligence officer sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for stealing state secrets on Israel's behalf.

Abbas merely wants his own despairing and fractious constituency to let him keep talking.

In any event, Kerry must be running out of ploys to keep the negotiations alive. Since last July, he has lowered his sights first to a statement of principles, then to a "framework" for talks and, most recently, to a non-binding American paper.

Even that now seems too much for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to stomach. Palestinians fear Kerry might deprive them of a host of statehood attributes, including East Jerusalem as their would-be capital.

Both sides are bartering over confidence-building measures simply to keep the process going.

Netanyahu is proposing a partial settlement freeze, excluding East Jerusalem and the thousands of new buildings for settler homes his government has put out for tender in recent months. As a sweetener, he might offer to free 400 more Palestinian prisoners, most of them women and minors, on top of the 26 previously agreed.

The Palestinians are holding out for the release of other jailed leaders, such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmed Saadat, and want a total freeze on settlement-building.

Even if this latest bout of bargaining ends in a modest deal, hope of resolving bigger outstanding issues on the road to creating two states still will be dim.

Kerry must be close to his wits' end.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 A17

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