Like a long line of American diplomats before him, John F. Kerry is about to try to beat the odds in the U.S. effort to negotiate peace in the Middle East.
The secretary of state will travel to Israel and the West Bank on Sunday — his second visit inside three weeks — with hopes of nudging Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume direct negotiations. If he succeeds in helping the two sides broker a deal for a separate Palestinian state, it would be a crowning achievement for American engagement after years of declining influence in the region.
If he fails, however, he and President Obama may at least get some credit for trying. Obama and Kerry have both warned that time is quickly running out to make a deal.
The State Department insists that this isn’t the shuttle diplomacy of old, but the quick return shows that the Obama administration sees real promise for renewed talks. The White House, too, is showing signs of resumed engagement. On Friday, officials announced that the leaders of Jordan, Turkey and Qatar would visit with Obama in the coming weeks. Mideast peace was not mentioned as an agenda item in the brief White House notices, but U.S. officials hope to line up Arab support for any new negotiations.
A resumption of talks, mostly frozen for more than four years, would be the first small accomplishment toward a broad agreement that settles borders for a future state of Palestine and resolves bitter disputes over administration of Jerusalem and the claims of Palestinians and their heirs displaced from modern Israel six decades ago.
“I think all of us have learned in the course of the last years, through many presidents and many secretaries of state, there has been no more intractable problem,” Kerry said shortly after leaving Jerusalem and the West Bank with Obama last month. “Expressing optimism when you don’t even have negotiations would be foolhardy. What I have is hope.”
Obama joins a list of presidents that includes Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who used the elbow room of a second term to tackle Mideast peacemaking, but he is letting Kerry do the spadework for now. Kerry will tell both sides that they have to genuinely want to return to the negotiating table if they expect American help, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this past week.
“His diplomacy will be based on what he hears from the parties,” Nuland said. “They’ve got to recognize — both parties — that compromises and sacrifices are going to have to be made if we’re going to be able to help.”
Kerry will present no plan and has no set schedule for returning after this visit, Nuland said. But other U.S. officials said Kerry is expected to make regular visits to keep the pressure on Israel and the Palestinians to continue talking.
“Kerry is genuinely interested and willing to get the U.S. engaged on the peace process,” said Marwan Muasher, a Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question is, would that engagement be enough to result in a deal or not?”
Although encouraged by Obama’s apparent backing for a dormant regional Arab peace proposal, Muasher said, Arabs are skeptical that Obama has the political will to drive a deal and fear that he is going about it backward by sending Kerry to feel out both sides.
Only clear parameters set or endorsed by the United States, and a strong mission statement from the White House, can overcome the skepticism that has taken hold after so many failed peace attempts, Muasher and other Arab analysts said.
Qatar’s foreign minister put Kerry on the spot on that point during the secretary of state’s visit to that country last month, criticizing the United States as a timid Mideast peacebroker.
“We felt optimistic when President Obama came to power,” with an insistence on pursuing an independent Palestinian state, Sheik Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani said, “but we wait for it to be activated.”
“The problem is, when Israel has a strong government, they say, ‘It’s a strong government with popular support, we cannot do anything about it,’ ” Hamad said. “When a weak government comes to power, they say, ‘It’s a weak government, we can’t do anything about it because they can’t do anything about it.’ ”
Kerry nodded to assure Hamad that he is making Mideast peace a priority but didn’t reply.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the American Jewish advocacy group J Street, said the administration is taking the right approach. “An empowered secretary of state is exactly what you need,” Ben-Ami said. “You bring in the president at the right moments.”
As a practical matter, peace is much harder to make now than it was when Bill Clinton came close to a deal with Israel and Yasser Arafat, then head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 2000. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a troubled history with Obama and a new unruly political coalition at home.
The composition of a Palestinian state grows ever more complicated by Israeli settlements and security measures. The Palestinian political leadership is fractured and its relations with the United States tense. Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and the backbone of past peacemaking efforts, is in turmoil. Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi’s commitment to peace talks is unclear, and he was not among Arab leaders whose visits were announced Friday.
The White House is keeping expectations extremely low, as Obama’s aides did before he made his first visit to Israel as president last month. Obama won a surprise agreement between Turkey and Israel to repair diplomatic ties after a two-year rift and warm welcomes from Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Kerry will go to Turkey ahead of the Mideast visit to shore up Turkey’s agreement with Israel, which calls for an apology and reparations by Israel for the deaths of Turks aboard a ship that tried to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Talks on compensation are set to begin Friday, and Washington is concerned that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may upend the deal.
Turkey was a key Muslim partner to Israel before the 2010 ship fiasco, and repairing ties serves both to calm waters for peace talks and improve regional cooperation in dealing with refugees and sectarian divisions spawned by the civil war in Syria.
Kerry is going at a tense time. Last week saw the heaviest fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since a cease-fire was declared in November after some shuttle diplomacy by Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Palestinian militants in Gaza fired several rockets into southern Israel, and Israel responded with its first airstrike in Gaza this year.