When Secretary of State John Kerry first waded into the muddy waters of Middle East peace, he was ridiculed and ignored. After his third trip to the region, he was called “ham-handed” and “naive.” After a subsequent trip, he was accused of “Don Quixote” diplomacy. But now talks between Israelis and Palestinians are finally resuming after years of stalemate. Kerry’s quiet, dogged efforts are being celebrated. He deserves credit for sheer determination in the face of so many naysayers and skeptics. Kerry has taken four trips to Israel since becoming secretary of state in February. That’s just one fewer than Hillary Clinton took during her four years in the job.
Kerry has shown creativity and wisdom in his attempts to restart the talks. His decision to conduct his shuttle diplomacy far from the glare of public scrutiny was the right one. He works virtually alone, with Frank Lowenstein, a trusted former staffer from his days in the Senate, so there have been few leaks to the media. On Monday, he announced that Martin Indyk, a well-respected former US ambassador to Israel, will lead the talks.
To be sure, his attempts to restart talks have been met with resistance. Some compare Kerry’s diplomacy to six months of pushing a boulder up a hill. Pundits, policymakers, and even former diplomats question whether the payoff will be worth all the effort. But Kerry has managed to score some significant successes. He helped convince the Arab League to renew its 2002 peace initiative, which offers to normalize relations with Israel once a Palestinian state has been established. Israel has never warmed to the offer, in part because it mandated a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, without accepting Israel’s retention of large settlement blocks in the West Bank. But recently, at Kerry’s urging, the Arab League amended the initiative to make it clear that the Arab League accepts land swaps that would allow some settlements to remain with Israel. That’s a big step forward.
Kerry has also prodded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to release about 100 Palestinian prisoners who have been in jail since before the 1993 Oslo accords. The prisoner release, a key demand of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, is deeply unpopular in Israel. But Netanyahu’s government is proceeding with it. Netanyahu deserves praise for taking political risks for peace. And Abbas deserves credit for dropping his demand that Israel freeze settlements before talks resume.
Of course there is no guarantee that talks will actually lead anywhere. Kerry has a long road ahead if he wants to broker a meaningful agreement that solves this intractable problem. But through his exertions, Kerry has breathed new life into a process that nearly everyone had abandoned. He is bringing an energy to solving the conflict not seen in over a decade. Because many past efforts at negotiations have broken down, leaving behind only a deepening sense of pessimism, new talks are a gamble. But this gamble is worth pursuing. Kerry’s sense of urgency is well-placed. Time is running out on the two-state solution. If the West Bank fills with settlements, a Palestinian state won’t be viable.
It is worth remembering that the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians doesn’t just hurt both sides; it also hurts the United States. It is the core issue issue that jihadists use to whip up anti-American hatred across the Muslim world. US national security will be vastly improved if stateless Palestinians, who have been in limbo for decades, finally receive a just outcome and if the Muslim world finally accepts the existence of America’s ally Israel.