WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry is playing a backstage role as President Obama meets this week with senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the first foreign trip of his second term.
But once the initial excitement of the presidential trip subsides, it will be up to Kerry — who has a deep reservoir of credibility with both adversaries in one of the region’s most intractable disputes — to try to build momentum and jump-start long-stalled peace talks, according to American, Israeli, and Arab specialists.
Kerry has signalled he is prepared for the challenge, despite many factors that indicate a breakthrough may remain elusive. In fact, the secretary has gone out of his way in recent weeks to raise expectations that a viable diplomatic path exists to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, even though high-level direct talks have not taken place for five years.
“Kerry is the front man on this,” said Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. “Kerry is the person who has to float the trial balloons.”
Gilead Sher, the chief Israeli peace negotiator between 1991 and 2001 and now at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, added: “Kerry is someone who knows more than just a little about the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian issue in a particular. I think Kerry knows that a way forward is far better than any alternative. He knows the status quo is untenable and doesn’t serve American, Israeli, or Palestinian interests.”
President Obama’s three-day visit to the region that began Wednesday is mostly designed to reintroduce him to the Israeli public, which recent polls show holds a dim view of an American leader perceived as focusing more on America’s Arab and Muslim allies.
To showcase his support, Obama will lay a wreath on Thursday at the grave of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, who laid out the vision of a Jewish homeland in biblical Israel nearly a half century before Israel’s independence in 1948. He will also visit Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust, and view an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish writings discovered in what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Obama, who will also briefly stop in the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and neighboring Jordan, also met Wednesday with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who bestowed on him Israel’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Distinction.
But his most substantive meetings, often with Kerry at his side, are with Israel’s reelected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials of his new governing coalition.
Among the top agenda items will be how to stop Iran’s nuclear program as well as the ongoing civil war in Syria. As for peace with the Palestinians, a major impediment to moving forward, according to regional specialists, is the makeup of the new Israeli government, which officially took office Monday and represents hawkish views, like its predecessor.
The new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon is a former army commando and a deep skeptic of peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians. The new housing minister, Uri Ariel, said on the eve of Obama’s visit that the construction of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the West Bank — seen as a major impediment to peace — “will continue in accordance with what the government’s policy has been thus far. I see no reason to change it.”
Meanwhile, the Palestinians remain severely fractured between the more moderate Fatah faction in the West Bank and the hostile, anti-Israel Hamas, which launched hundreds of rockets into Israel last fall from its base on the Gaza Strip.
Kerry is among those who see hope in this otherwise bleak picture. He arrived in Jerusalem a day ahead of the president and will reportedly return to Jerusalem immediately after Obama’s departure to huddle with leaders over how to revive the peace process.
Kerry recently warned that the time to act is now, before conditions grow even more difficult for a lasting agreement.
“We need to try to find a way forward, and I happen to believe that there is a way forward,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing to secretary of state in late January. “But I also believe that if we can’t be successful, the door, window, whatever you want to call it, to the possibility of a two-state solution could shut on everybody, and that would be disastrous in my judgment.”
In his early weeks on the job, Kerry has struck a similar chord. Meeting with the Jordanian foreign minister last month, he said of the peace process: “I believe that there are possibilities.”
Before he left for Israel, Kerry met in Washington with Australian Foreign Minister Robert Carr, who told Kerry he was counting on him to make progress.
“I applaud the fact that you as secretary of state are committing yourself, with your president, to the Middle East peace process. American leadership is required to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,” Carr said at a press conference Monday.
In the coming weeks close observers are expecting some new Kerry overtures toward the Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps out of public view.
“The secretary, partly because of his own reputation and stature, can do a lot behind the scenes,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Even in Israel, which is currently focused on Obama’s first trip as president, there is a perception that Kerry, not Obama, holds the keys to a renewed American role in the peace process.
“One of the purposes of the [Obama] visit is to blaze the way for Kerry, who we’ll see here often,” Danny Ayalon, former deputy foreign minister, told reporters Tuesday.