WASHINGTON: The United States has hinted it might try Middle East peace-making once again, but the newly-appointed Secretary of State John Kerry is likely to move cautiously, in contrast to US President Barack Obama’s failed, high-profile first-term initiative.
While the possibility of another failure may hang over the White House, Kerry suggested recently that time was running out for a two-state solution with Israel living alongside a sovereign Palestinian state. He said it would be “disastrous” if it did.
When Obama came into power in 2009, he made peace between Israelis and Palestinians a priority, visiting the State Department two days after taking office to announce his choice of former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy.
Four years later, the president has little to show for it.
Formal talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 within weeks of resuming. Mitchell resigned in 2011 and both sides have since taken steps that have antagonised the other — Israel by building Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians want for a state and the Palestinians by seeking enhanced status at the United Nations.
Against this backdrop, former senior US peace negotiators said they expect Obama to proceed cautiously and to let Kerry to take soundings for any fresh effort. That could allow Obama to avoid investing too much personal capital in a fresh effort until there was a prospect of real progress.
“I believe that Kerry and Obama are committed and interested in doing something,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who advised Democratic and Republican secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations from 1982 to 2003.
However, Miller said the two sides were too far apart right now for any big initiative to succeed and that a more circumspect approach made more sense.
“Unlike last time around ... (Obama) is going to be quite patient and deliberate in avoiding the mistakes he made during his previous run, which is why it’s really hard right now ... to predict the arc of any sort of big initiative,” he said.
While neither Kerry nor Obama have specified what approach they plan, some of Kerry’s allies outside government have suggested that he wants to move aggressively.
Miller and other former US diplomats interviewed said they were not privy to what plans, if any, the two men might have.
However, they said Obama’s second term offered a new chance with Kerry, a new chief diplomat who has made no secret of his interest in the Middle East, and that the January 22 Israeli elections created a somewhat better environment for peace despite the intrinsic challenges.
Fit for the job
Having watched the peace process unfold, and unravel, from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the last three decades, analysts said Kerry has a deep knowledge of the issue and its players.
Among the obstacles are the divisions within the Israeli and Palestinian societies about making peace; a sense of disbelief that peace itself may ever be possible; and the rise of hardline parties, notably in Egypt, that may be less supportive of it.
At his January 24 confirmation hearing, Kerry said “my hope ... my prayer is that perhaps this can be a moment where we can renew some kind of effort to get the parties into a discussion.”
“We need to try to find a way forward, and I happen to believe that there is a way forward,” he said, but added: “I also believe that if we can’t be successful, the door... to the possibility of a two-state solution could shut on everybody and that would be disastrous.”
Indyk said that if Obama believed “that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t have the best interests of Israel at heart, is a political coward, isn’t going to take risks for peace — if that your basic view, why would you bother, why would you try?”
“On the other side is John Kerry’s belief that the window is closing on the two-state solution and that it is an obligation of the United States to try to stop that from happening, at least to preserve the hope of a two-state solution,” he said.