Much like President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East last month, the White House played down a weekend visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories by Secretary of State John Kerry who talked with officials from both sides in what is dubbed a “quiet” effort on the part of the United States to revive the peace process.
Kerry spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah as well as Israeli president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Other than words that peace is desirable, possible and in the interest of all parties involved, nothing exciting was produced from all of Kerry’s meetings. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are, after all, widely divided on the core issues, let alone what a final settlement should look like. And despite talk of wanting to move the peace process forward, the mistrust between Jerusalem and Ramallah is at such a height that ordinary Palestinians are no longer sure that a two-state solution is possible anymore.
Yet with John Kerry, the United States have an intensely focused diplomat with decades of experience in containing conflicts and finding ways to resolve them. Those who know the former Democratic senator well acknowledge that he has long taken a special interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Kerry’s three trips to the Middle East in under a month is a testament to that desire and while recent diplomacy is certainly not on par with the Henry Kissinger and James Baker tours of previous decades, it is a strong signal that the Obama Administration wants to be more proactive than less.
Elected to a second term in November and therefore without electoral constraints around his neck, President Obama has the freedom he needs to be that proactive mediator.
The question is what kind of peace plan or roadmap the president and Secretary Kerry would like to endorse. McClatchy reported earlier this week that the latter is trying to bring the Arab League Peace Initiative back to life which suggests that the administration would like to strike a grand bargain in the entire Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, is perhaps the most comprehensive deal that has ever been submitted to the Arab-Israeli dispute. Under its terms, Israel would receive full recognition from and normalization of ties with the Arab states in the region in exchange for a withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied since the 1967 war. Israel would also have to accept and recognize an independent state of Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank with its capital in East Jerusalem.
Past Israeli governments have refused to accept those terms but Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly open to the plan in order to deescalate the decades-old conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
If this is what Kerry hopes to do, he will surely find himself in an extremely difficult position. The Middle East is a much different place today than it was in 2002. Arab states that would have readily agreed to sign on then, including Egypt, may find its terms harder to accept now given the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood movement across the region.
Back in 2002, when Syria was relatively calm, an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was a real possibility. Now, with Syria in civil war and radical Islamists creeping closer to the Golan area, Netanyahu would be ill-advices to consider redeploying his forces.
Even the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders would be a tough sell for the incumbent Israeli government which has repeatedly said that it will not cede jurisdiction of large Israeli settlements over that line.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was never easy but America’s new chief diplomat is at least willing to sacrifice some of his credibility to determine whether an accord can yet be reached.