April 12, 2013

SYRIA’S CIVIL war, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, gets worseevery day. So does Egypt’s domestic political and economic turmoil. The terrorists who assaulted the U.S. Consulate in Libya have yet to be corralled; Iraq is on the verge of splitting into sectarian pieces; negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program are going nowhere.

Yet Mr. Kerry dedicated himself this week to spending the next couple of months focusing intensively on . . . the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” which not only has proved resistant to the diplomacy of President Obama and numberless previous secretaries of state, but also is not, for now, the source of any of the fires raging across the region.

What gives? Mr. Kerry seems to have a number of reasons for investing scarce time and diplomatic capital in this perpetually failing venture. Some are unpersuasive: He says “time is running out” for a two-state solution, but diplomats and regional experts have been delivering that warning for at least 25 years. One is personal: A veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry has developed a passion for the issue and seems to believe he can avoid the mistakes made by Mr. Obama, whose attempt to force a settlement freeze on Israel led to a rancorous three-way impasse between him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In a speech in Israel last month that paved the way for Mr. Kerry’s initiative, Mr. Obama urged that the settlement issue be set aside. But in meetings with Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas this week, Mr. Kerry appeared to make little headway. Mr. Abbas, who for four years said he would not negotiate with Mr. Netanyahu absent a settlement freeze, deftly shifted his ground, demanding that Israel present a map outlining its proposed borders at the beginning of any talks. Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, reiterated his view that the starting point should be Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Both leaders know their preconditions are non-starters.

In pursuing a new peace process in spite of the leaders’ resistance, Mr. Kerry is making an assumption that Mr. Obama has rejected elsewhere in the region: that by leading from the front, the United States can force events and impose solutions. If his goal is a final agreement on Palestinian statehood, he has almost no chance for success.

The initiative could still prove useful, if it is carefully crafted. Encouragingly, Mr. Kerry is beginning with an economic initiative, what he described as “specific steps that we could take to . . . expedite the goal of economic growth in the West Bank.” He is talking to Mr. Netanyahu about Mr. Abbas’s objective of prisoner releases and to Mr. Abbas about refraining from further action at the United Nations targeting Israel. He appears to have persuaded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to postpone a potentially provocative visit to the Gaza Strip.

These measures could serve to ease tensions, make life better for Palestinians and lay the groundwork for a day when serious negotiations about Palestinian statehood will be possible. If that is the aim, Mr. Kerry’s diplomacy could prove worthwhile.