Hillary Clinton traveled to Israel just twice in her four years as secretary of state. Instead, special envoy George Mitchell did most of the hands-on work of trying to restart the Middle East peace process. But near the end of his first year in the post, John Kerry is on his 10th trip to Israel in the most intense initiative in years to resolve a poisonous conflict. The vigor, tenacity, and specificity of his efforts offer a measure of hope after years of little progress.
There is plenty of skepticism about Kerry’s chances for success. Some have called him “Captain Ahab.” Others have called his quest a “fool’s errand.” But he has already achieved some modest success. This summer, he convinced the Arab League to renew its 2002 offer to recognize Israel after the creation of a Palestinian state. Most significantly, he persuaded the league to strip away a previous requirement that Israel allow tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel. To get talks restarted in August, Kerry pushed for Israel to agree to the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, which the Palestinian Authority had required for the resumption of talks.
Lastly, Kerry is operating with one of the most deft teams ever assembled; in addition to Martin Indyk, the US ambassador to Israel, it includes General John Allen, former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, who is in charge of devising ways to protect Israel’s security in any peace deal. Veteran Middle East scholar David Makovsky, an expert in mapping the possibilities of a Palestinian state, recently joined the team.
There are obvious obstacles in the way of Kerry’s efforts — not least of which is that neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems personally committed to the talks. On Thursday, before meeting with Kerry, Netanyahu publicly accused Abbas of embracing “terrorists as heroes.” Unless Kerry can convince Netanyahu and Abbas to invest their own political capital in peace, talks are likely to fail.
A further obstacle is that Netanyahu opposes the Obama administration’s moves to strike a nuclear deal with Iran, so he may be in no mood to give Kerry what he wants on a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, Abbas, elected to a four-year term in 2005, is becoming increasingly autocratic. After Hamas won a majority in parliament in 2006, neither Abbas nor Israel had an interest in new Palestinian elections. But the farther Palestinians get away from democracy, the less legitimacy Abbas will have as a negotiating partner.
Despite all these obstacles, Kerry continues to push forward. Unlike Clinton, who may yet run for president, Kerry sees that his tenure as secretary of state will define his legacy forever. At a speech at the United Nations earlier this year, he said he is pushing so hard for peace because the status quo is becoming too dangerous. He’s right. Violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians is at a boiling point. So are threats against Israel from non-state actors. A breakthrough won’t just happen by itself. Progress towards peaceful coexistence requires creative, aggressive diplomacy. Kerry, thankfully, is doing just that.