After Peace-Process Stumble, Is John Kerry Wasting His Time in the Middle East?

The Secretary of State comes up short for now, but that doesn't mean he's failed.

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Mandel Ngan / Pool / REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks out of a helicopter window at Zaatari refugee camp while flying to the camp near the Jordanian-Syrian border on July 18, 2013

Today was supposed to be a breakthrough day for John Kerry’s effort to kick-start the long-stalled Middle East peace process. By some reports Thursday the U.S. Secretary of State was on the cusp of announcing a new round of peace talks, refuting skeptics who called his weeks of shuttle diplomacy a waste of time. It didn’t happen. Later in the day came word that Palestinian officials have balked and are demanding clearer assurances from Israel before they’ll sit down to talk. Now Kerry is rushing to the West Bank for hastily scheduled talks with the Palestinians to salvage his project. (Update: On Friday afternoon, Washington time, Kerry announced that his Friday meetings had “established a basis” for a resumption of talks.)

To some, it’s just another story of Lucy and the football in the Holy Land, where nothing will ever change and where Kerry is wasting time he could be spending on more malleable issues, from Egypt to Asia. But some close observers of the peace process say that a breakthrough is still likely — and that even if it isn’t, Kerry is wise to resuscitate the Arab-Israeli issue, which not long ago was pronounced dead in many quarters.

“I think the media has been lowballing Kerry’s chances” at success, says David Makovsky, a peace-process expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think this is going to happen, where they get to the table” for talks.

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Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Kerry had been bullish, if not quite boastful, about the progress he’s made over his six trips to the region since he replaced Hillary Clinton in January. “When this process started several months ago, there were very wide gaps … between the two sides,” he said, adding: “We have been able to narrow those gaps very significantly.”

“I would caution everybody to resist the temptation to speculate about where things stand or what is possible,” Kerry continued. “The easiest bet among Middle East prognosticators has always been on predicting impasse. That’s always been the easiest bet, and I understand that.”

There are some fresh reasons to bet against impasse. This week the Arab League endorsed Kerry’s terms for peace talks. Egypt has replaced its pro-Hamas President with a military regime that favors the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas. A new E.U. resolution barring the funding of projects in Israeli settlements has increased pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently saw conservative allies opposed to peace talks weakened. For their part, the Palestinians are eager to assure the delivery of a $4 billion public-private economic support package Kerry unveiled in May.

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Talks themselves don’t mean much, of course. And some informed observers remain skeptical about the prospects for a peace deal. “On a fundamental level I don’t think the parties [in the region] are in a much different position than they were three or four years ago. It’s a mess over there,” says Jonathan Prince, who served as an adviser to Obama’s former Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. “It’s the same leadership with the same lack of courage and the same obsession with parochial concerns.”

But, Prince argues, Kerry’s effort is hardly misplaced even if its odds are long: “Engagement has benefits all its own that are divorced from the prospects of success. When the hope of a diplomatic resolution decreases, the search for alternative resolutions — meaning violence — increases.”

It appears that Kerry may be acting on that principle. “It seems what the Secretary is trying to do is make progress by inches rather than yards,” says former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. Kerry is “forcing a conversation that could easily be sidelined by other, more urgent challenges. He’s making sure this issue is still in play.”

Makovsky thinks that talks are still likely to commence. But, he adds, “then it’s a question of whether Kerry gets success at the table.” That’s the real question. For now, however, Kerry will be happy to get the talking started.

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