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.

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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.

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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.

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