WASHINGTON – When Secretary of State John Kerry bounded up the steps to his converted Air Force 757 in Amman, Jordan, on Friday night, staffers greeted him with applause.
He grabbed a bottle of Sam Adams beer and strolled down the aisle to celebrate his most significant achievement yet in his short tenure as America's top diplomat: winning agreement from the Israelis and Palestinians on a framework for resuming stalled peace talks.
It was a necessary breakthrough, for sure, yet a modest one, with the lowest bar for success in a process that merely sets the stage for what comes next: difficult and protracted negotiations aimed at a goal that has eluded successive U.S. administrations despite investments of serious time, energy, prestige and money.
He has made six frenetic trips to the Middle East in as many months and spent countless hours shuttling from Jordan to Israel and the West Bank to cajole Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into returning to the table. During his latest visit to the region this past week, Kerry finally had something to toast and back up his oft-stated claim that he was making progress in bringing the two sides back together.
Minutes before starting back home, at a hastily arranged event in a VIP lounge at the Amman airport, Kerry announced that his single-minded effort, derided by some in Washington and the Mideast as a waste of time, had resulted in a deal "that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis." He said it was not yet formalized but called it "a significant and welcome step forward."
Top negotiators for the two sides would come to Washington in the "next week or so," he said, to begin preliminary direct discussions. Officials said Kerry would name a new U.S. point person to shepherd the negotiations on a day-to-day basis.
For all the buzz among Kerry aides who spoke excitedly of witnessing history in the making, the airport announcement was unusually subdued and brief.
Tired after a week of multiple meetings with Abbas and phone conversations with Netanyahu, and all the while concerned about the health of his ailing wife in Boston, Kerry appeared alone at the podium in front of an unadorned blue cloth screen.
There was no pomp. There were no Israeli or Palestinian officials at his side. There were no questions. And there were no details about either the framework or even the end game.
Secrecy would be paramount, he said. Neither Kerry nor his staff would go beyond his statement, even privately.
"We are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now," Kerry said. "Any speculation or reports you may read in the media or elsewhere or here in the press are conjecture. They are not based on fact because the people who know the facts are not talking about them."
But hours later, an Israeli official who should know something of the agreement, Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, went on Israel radio to say that some Palestinian prisoners would be released as part of the plan.
Presumably, this violated the vow of silence that Kerry said the parties had made and it wasn't even done anonymously, as is usually the case. It almost will certainly be the first of many such violations.
It underscored some of the main obstacles that have bedeviled all previous Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts: the inability or unwillingness of the parties to keep quiet, coupled with the refusal of American mediators to reject leaks to the Israeli, Palestinian and wider Arab media aimed at either enhancing one side's negotiating position or inflaming public opinion to scuttle the talks altogether.
The problem for Kerry and his team is that the facts are known.
Both sides' demands long have been common knowledge and they are far apart on the most contentious issues: the borders of an eventual Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, Israeli security and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
The world knows the Palestinians want a state based on the 1967 lines, adjusted to accommodate land swaps, with east Jerusalem as its capital. The Israelis don't want to commit up front to the 1967 contours even with revisions. They insist on a secure Jewish state that would preclude the right of return for Palestinian refugees and on keeping Jerusalem as their undivided capital.
Kerry's announcement made no mention of these facts.
They are not easy, but they cannot be avoided or ignored in public if the negotiations are to produce a deal.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Lee covers the State Department and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press. He has reported on Middle East peace efforts since 1999.