THE INTENSE focus of Secretary of State John F. Kerry on the long-moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process when neighboring Egypt is collapsing into chaos and Syria’s civil war rages unabated provokes more than a little head-scratching among diplomats from the Middle East. What, they ask us, could possibly possess Mr. Kerry to so intently pursue such an unpromising initiative, even as the United States refuses to exert leadership on crises of paramount importance to the region?
To be generous to the secretary of state, there is a logical — if narrow — answer to that question. Mr. Kerry’s attempt to fashion a more robust U.S. policy in Syria has been thwarted by President Obama’s refusal to countenance anything beyond symbolic help for the rebels. In Egypt, what American influence still exists is best wielded via the Pentagon, which maintains close ties with the Egyptian military.
That leaves the Israelis and Palestinians, who still are responsive to U.S. diplomacy and tend to be flattered by the concerted attentions of a figure such as Mr. Kerry. Though neither side has yet agreed to the resumption of negotiations Mr. Kerry has set as his goal, it would not be surprising if they did, eventually, if only to avoid being blamed for a failure. While the process — or even the pre-process — lasts, the Palestinian Authority is more likely to refrain from creating trouble for Israel and the United States in the United Nations. And the appearance of talks may ease some of the mounting hostility Israel is encountering in Europe.
So far, so good. But what happens when and if negotiations start? That is where the real trouble lies for Mr. Kerry: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have demonstrated repeatedly over the past two decades that they are unwilling to make the sort of compromises a two-state peace deal would require. In 2008 Mr. Abbas rejected an offer from Mr. Netanyahu’s predecessor, including the incorporation of half of Jerusalem into a Palestinian state and the “return” of some Palestinian refugees to Israel, that Mr. Netanyahu would never accept.
Like previous failed U.S. initiatives, Mr. Kerry’s diplomacy ignores the powerful Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, opposes a peace deal and is capable of disrupting negotiations at any time by resuming missile attacks against Israel. Mr. Kerry banks on the support of Arab states, but two of Israel’s Arab neighbors have no functioning government, while the other two — Jordan and Lebanon — have been all but overwhelmed by the spillover of refugees and fighting from Syria.
Mr. Kerry has kept relatively quiet about his plans. We’d like to believe that he recognizes that a peace deal is not feasible now and is aiming at useful interim steps, such as the economic development plan for the West Bank he has suggested or Israel scaling back settlement construction and yielding control of more West Bank territory. Those would be achievements worth an investment of time, assuming one has written off the possibility of American leadership beyond Jerusalem and Ramallah.