The Big Questions Behind John Kerry’s Latest Push for Middle East Peace

A peace deal is not "mission impossible," he says, but some think even Hollywood heroics can't save the process

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat at the State Department in Washington on July 30, 2013

“This is not mission impossible,” John Kerry said last week, speaking of his latest effort to rejuvenate the Middle East peace process. Many people disagree. Five months after the U.S. Secretary of State revived the long-stalled talks, it looks as though a diplomatic feat akin to Tom Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building might be required to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to an agreement.

Still, Kerry is nothing if not persistent. In his latest trip through the Middle East, he’s made stops in Israel (his 10th visit there), the West Bank, Saudi Arabia and Jordan as he tries to keep the two sides negotiating in earnest — something that isn’t happening independent of Kerry’s efforts.

After months of distractions in Egypt, Syria and Iran, Kerry is redoubling his efforts as a self-imposed deadline of May approaches. His latest gambit is to sell the two sides on a framework agreement that might support and organize more detailed negotiations for a comprehensive deal. Here are some essential questions about what Kerry’s up to and how it might turn out:

Is a deal really possible? Plenty of experts doubt it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a security hawk with a conservative political base that has shown little enthusiasm for concessions toward the Palestinians. (Witness the continued expansion of controversial Israeli settlements in occupied territories.) The Palestinian leadership is divided between the relative moderates of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Hamas militants in Gaza, who may not honor a deal cut by the PA. Nor have the Palestinians shown much inclination for concessions, like giving up the claimed right of Palestinians displaced from within Israel’s original borders to return home.

(PHOTOS: Secretary of State John Kerry’s First Overseas Trip)

Both sides, meanwhile, are reportedly unconvinced by a plan Kerry has presented detailing how Israel’s security could be guaranteed after a withdrawal from most of the occupied territories. And the age-old challenge of dividing control of Jerusalem and its holy sites still looks as easy as asking a blind man to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

Is the White House fully on board? Kerry has been the star of the peace-process show to date, barnstorming around the Middle East with the energy of a man half his age. But no deal will be possible without a strong commitment from the U.S. President. And that’s a touchy topic. Barack Obama was burned by his failed first-term attempt to restart the peace talks, which brought him little more than grief from Jewish-American leaders and conservatives who said he pressured Israel too hard. That’s likely why Obama has kept a cautious distance from Kerry’s efforts thus far, placing virtually none of the President’s political capital on the line. In Jerusalem and Amman, there may be doubts about whether Kerry, if he’s acting largely as a free agent, is a strong enough horse to drag the talks across the finish line.

But it’s wrong to assume that Obama has given up on the peace process entirely. Skeptics should revisit the President’s rousing March 2013 speech in Jerusalem, which featured an impassioned argument for achieving a peace deal. “Peace is possible,” Obama told an audience of students that day. “I’m not saying it’s guaranteed. I can’t even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible.” And remember that the President is still in the market for legacy-making achievements, especially when it comes to his troubled foreign policy agenda.

(MORE: Christmas Violence in the Holy Land Shadows Middle East Peace Talks)

Why now, after so many failures? Good question. To hear optimists tell it, the winds have recently shifted in favor of a deal: international pressure on Israel is growing, pressing Netanyahu. Hamas has been weakened after losing its chief patron when the Muslim Brotherhood was deposed from power in neighboring Egypt. And Obama doesn’t need to worry about another re-election campaign, perhaps making him willing to assume a little more risk at crunch time if a deal seems close. Then there’s the obvious personal dedication of Kerry, who appears willing to travel every single day — perhaps out of his own quest for a historic achievement to crown his political career.

Of course, the peace process has defied force of will before — just ask Bill Clinton or Condoleezza Rice. The betting in Washington is that Kerry will be the latest American to walk away disillusioned. He hardly seems naive about his prospects, however. “These issues are not easy,” Kerry said on Sunday. “As I’ve said before, if this was easy, this would have been resolved a long time ago.” Impossible or not, the mission continues.

MORE: The Illusion of Progress: 9 Reasons Why Israel-Palestinian Talks May Fail

19 comments
Mladen
Mladen

Test yourself on your knowledge of the Middle East. Take the quiz meant for John Kerry

Google "A mini 5 + 1 question quiz for Secretary Kerry"

swg333tx
swg333tx

When asked to comment, President Obama said "I found out about it just like you did, by reading the Yahoo comments".

AbrahamYeshuratnam
AbrahamYeshuratnam

Why Kerry is in a hurry when there are problems in Syria, challenge from Puti, emergence of Chinese naval power, and economic woes in the U.S.?

Dysfunctional. Rocky. Frosty. There are a variety of terms pundits have used to describe the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama over the past five years. Though the atmospherics improved somewhat after Obama’s 2013 trip to Israel, the relationship has chilled again in the wake of the nuclear deal with Iran. 

And the peace talks, a White House initiative on which, out of the all the world’s problems, Obama has decided to exert concerted effort, have already begun to bear their bitter fruit for Israel. Since talks started in July, violence has risen steadily every month, climbing from 87 attacks in July to 167 in November.What’s more, Israeli experts are expecting another spike in violence in April, when the talks are slated to end, most likely with no tangible agreement.

As Israel faces concerted pressure, lethal violence and international opprobrium because of the failure of US-generated talks that themselves have brought violence, the Jewish state can perhaps take some solace that at least one neighbor understands their predicament — their new kindred spirits in the Saudi royal family.
“He’s so wounded,” said influential Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal, referring to Obama. “It’s very scary. Look, the 2014 elections are going to begin. Within two months they’re going to start campaigning. Thirty-nine members of his own party in the House have already moved away from him on Obamacare. That’s scary for him.

SigmundRoseth
SigmundRoseth

This is a tribal/religious conflict that won't be resolved by outside intervention. Let the fire burn itself out. Perhaps there will be a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

Replacing John Kerry with the Worm will probably get better results. Horsey Faced is just like his Boss. Incompetent. Dennis Rodman did what no other diplomat accomplish even if just on a good will visit.

FrozenInChicago
FrozenInChicago

According to a report this morning, John Kerry admitted himself into a rehab facility after President Obama staged an intervention at the White House Thanksgiving dinner. Apparently the secretary of state is doing very well and eager to get on with his life. http://bit.ly/IGgOb3

zelskid1
zelskid1

He is wasting his time.Israel won't stop building settlements and Palestinians are unrealistic


CliffordSpencer
CliffordSpencer

Was Israel in the loop on IRAN-CONTRA?

Did it approve of the scheme to sell arms to Ahminejad's mentor, Ayatollah  Khomeni?

   Remember when Reagan voided the sale, of jets to Israel, after it bombed Saddam Hussein's nuclear site?

  Reagan, not Obama, placed a wreath at a NAZI cemetery in Bitburg, Germany!

  Did Israel approve?

  Did the families, of the sailors aboard the USS REUBEN JAMES, approve?

Tiger-Pi
Tiger-Pi

Kerry must be planning to get nominated for the US Presidential elections  by his show of  international heroics. Otherwise why should he    want to      get   these two bitter  biblical enemies to agree on a peaceful solution by twisting their necks when they do not want to  even shake hands with each other? I wonder if even Angel Gabriel could get them to come to terms and live in peace. A stable democratic  Egypt would have helped in this peace process but that is now a distant dream.

zelskid1
zelskid1

He is wasting his time.Israel won't stop building settlements and Palestinians are unrealistic

alpha444
alpha444

Kerry is almost as full of catchy, but meaningless, pronouncements as he is full of himself.

bbsnews
bbsnews

Sigh.

"Witness the continued expansion of controversial Israeli settlements in occupied territories."

Strike One. They are NOT "controversial" - they are illegal, can Time be trusted if you cannot get this basic fact correct?

"The Palestinian leadership is divided between the relative moderates of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas militants in Gaza, who may not honor a deal cut by the PA."

Strike Two. Hamas' leadership has long been on record, they will accept a deal negotiated by Abu Mazen as long as it is voted on by the entire Arab Palestinian polity. They just don't believe it will ever happen, and frankly, everyone expects that Bibi will kill it.

"Nor have the Palestinians shown much inclination for concessions, like giving up the claimed right of Palestinians displaced from within Israel’s original borders to return home."

Strike Three. It's not a "claim", it is the law. Check UN resolution 194. And check the definition of Ethnic Cleansing. It's not just the law, it is a Crime Against Humanity.

Does Time Mag have any decent editors?

CliffordSpencer
CliffordSpencer

@Tiger-Pi,

President Carter did it!

  President Clinton did it!

  Kissinger did not!

  Perfectly clear?

yesh1prabhu
yesh1prabhu

@bbsnews I agree with what you have written. You have raised valid points and pointed out that the UN Security Council resolutions are the International Law. 


1. Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine are illegal, even though Obama calls them "illegitimate". I am astonished that Time editors do not know that.

2. The Palestinian refugees who were evicted from their lands when Israel was created using military force have the right to return to their homeland, and this right to return has been endorsed by the UN Resolution 194. Obviously, the editors at Time are ignorant of this fact also.


It seems to me, however, that this article creates a distinct impression as if it were written by a pro-Israel lobby and handed over to the Time editors to be printed on this website, and they published it without even bothering to read it. It has too many gross errors and distortions of facts.

What a shame.


Yesh Prabhu, Bushkill, Pennsylvania

jmac
jmac

@bbsnews We have to read that Kerry perhaps wants "a historical achievement to crown his political career" and that Obama is "still in the market for legacy-making achievements."


Apparently neither man really just wants a solution to the mess in the Middle East  - it's about their egos.  I don't remember  reading that Condi was after a jewel to crown her political career.  Was her quest simply doing it for the good of her nation and the world?   

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@jmac@bbsnewsFirst time I agreed with you Jmac. You must have woke up in the right side of bed this morning. {just kidding}

bbsnews
bbsnews

@jmac@bbsnews 

It is my sincere hope that it is the real-world direction that President Obama had with Rashid Khalidi during those dinner times before he became president that is driving this train. I believe it is as President Obama has already established that he favors international law with respect to the 1967 Green Line and the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative.

As most observers know, that's going to be the only basis for any give on res 194 and the right to return.