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Kerry Hopeful For Renewed Peace Talks Between Israel, Palestinians


The Obama administration is closely watching political developments in Israel. This week's elections there surprised many analysts in Washington. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to build a new center-right coalition. His party lost some seats in parliament to a new centrist challenger. The White House has had a rough relationship with Netanyahu, and so Washington is looking for a new opportunity now to promote peace. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In its first term, the Obama administration failed repeatedly to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. Officials are still sounding cautious about the possibilities. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland says the U.S. will wait and see what kind of coalition government emerges in Israel.

VICTORIA NULAND: As soon as the parties are ready we want to make a renewed push to try to get them back to the table.

KELEMEN: And that will likely fall to Senator John Kerry, who addressed the issue in his confirmation hearing to become secretary of State.

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: My prayer is that, you know, perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion to have, you know, a different track than we've been on over the course of the last couple of years.

KELEMEN: And he seemed hopeful given the elections in Israel. Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, though, says the U.S. shouldn't get its hopes up too high. Most Israeli politicians stayed away from the Palestinian issue during the campaign. And that includes centrist Yair Lapid, whose surprise showing has made him a key player in coalition talks.

MARTIN INDYK: There's a sliver of hope, no more than that, that with a more centrist coalition than we had expected that there will be a greater willingness to move forward on the Palestinian issue.

KELEMEN: But it won't top anyone's agenda, Indyk says. He predicts Lapid will be more focused on what his voters want, jobs and housing. As for the U.S., Indyk thinks there is a sense of relief in Washington that the Obama administration won't have to deal with a far right government in Israel. But he doesn't think President Obama is making Middle East peace a priority.

INDYK: He's ending wars in the Middle East, he'll be ending America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil. And I sense that he's basically ending American leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. His secretary of State will have a different thing in mind.

KELEMEN: Senator Kerry, who's expected to be confirmed as secretary of State next week, says the stakes are high in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

KERRY: So much of what we aspired to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf - all of this is tied to what can or doesn't happen with respect to Israel and Palestine.

KELEMEN: And Kerry has had a long interest in these issues, says former ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, who now teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

DANIEL KURTZER: I'm not surprised that he interested in this. I think he's also aware how challenging it will be but that's not going to stop him from at least giving it a shot at the beginning.

KELEMEN: Kurtzer warns it won't be enough just to get Israelis and Palestinians talking again. He suggests in a new book called "Pathways to Peace" that the U.S. needs to review its own policy first and spell out clear ideas on how to resolve the core issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.

KURTZER: So I think in the first instance we ought to get our own house in order and understand what it is we believe that constitutes a fair and reasonable outcome, and then decide how to use that tactically in bringing the parties together.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration may have other priorities around the world but Kurtzer says this is an issue that the U.S. ignores at its peril. And he says Kerry understands that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.