President Obama is not expected to announce any major initiative to relaunch the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process when he visits the region beginning Wednesday. But his top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, is known to be anxious to tackle an issue that some say has become almost a third rail in the president’s second term.
The question now is whether Mr. Obama, who is considered by many Washington policy experts to be the most controlling president of the nation’s foreign policy since perhaps Richard Nixon, will be willing to loosen the reins enough to give Secretary Kerry, and peace, a chance.
Tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “does not appear to be a priority for the second [Obama] term, [but] it is a priority for John Kerry,” says Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who is now director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Ambassador Indyk, who was an adviser to President Clinton on the Middle East peace process, says Obama “would rather turn away from this region,” but he adds that it is clear Kerry feels “the opposite,” and in particular is anxious “to take on the Israeli-Palestinian challenge.”
Obama set out as a new president launching an ambitious Mideast peace bid, and tried again in May 2011 when he used a major speech on the peace process to declare that the 1967 borders should serve as the starting point for negotiating land issues. But neither attempt got the president – or the peace process – very far.
A clue as to whether Kerry is going to be allowed to do that should come this week – as Obama visits Israel and the occupied West Bank with his secretary of state at his side – if it is going to happen at all.
“It’s important that the president publicly empower Secretary Kerry on this visit,” Indyk says, noting that leaders in the region – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the top of the list – see that Kerry has the president’s full backing.
They need to know that “Kerry is empowered,” he says, “and that the president will be behind him in every way.”
Speculation about a Kerry stab at reviving the peace process has risen in the context of Obama’s trip despite the mixed signals coming from the conflict’s key players.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians insist they are ready to return to negotiations, even as many regional analysts list the reasons why neither side is really ready.
Prime Minister Netanyahu went so far as to declare Israel ready to reach a “historic compromise” with Palestinians as he introduced his new coalition government to the Knesset, the national parliament.
Saying his new government “extends its hand for peace with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu added that, “With a Palestinian partner that is ready to conduct negotiations in good faith, Israel will be ready for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians once and for all.”
But the prime minister’s new government includes some of Israel’s most uncompromising supporters of settlements in the West Bank – the issue that President Abbas cites as the central roadblock to a restart of negotiations.
Like Netanyahu, Abbas says he is ready to return to talks – as soon as Israel freezes settlement construction. Abbas, who is already on very shaky ground with his West Bank constituents, simply can’t unconditionally return to negotiations, which Palestinians view as the trap that has allowed settlements to mushroom on occupied lands over decades of talks.
“Even the word ‘peace process’ is enough to throw Palestinians into seizures,” says Khaled Elgindy, a former negotiations adviser to the Palestinian leadership who is now a foreign policy fellow at Brookings.
And yet, thinking that the time is right to dust off the negotiating table and try again is not limited to Kerry. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton left office in January saying the moment seemed right to relaunch talks.
Others, like former White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, are laying out a series of confidence-building steps that both sides could take in the near term to pave the way to formal final-status negotiations.
One reason some key players – apparently including Kerry – view a credible restarting of talks as critical is that nothing suggests conditions will be better farther down the road. In fact, whispers of a brewing third intifada suggest to some that the window for a peaceful solution is closing.
Many experts with longtime experience in the region warn that the decades-old dream of an independent Palestine alongside a secure Jewish state of Israel may be coming to an end, as Israel pursues settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and as the Palestinians remain mired in their political and ideological splits.
But Indyk says Kerry brings a fresh enthusiasm and a determination to try a return to the table – although he acknowledges that Kerry would have to show at least some incremental progress soon for a diplomatic initiative to have a chance.
“It’s new for Kerry,” he says, “but it will be urgent to resolve some of the issues … because the two-state is in danger of cardiac arrest.”
But he also says he is skeptical of the thinking that this is “the last chance,” because in his view there is no alternative to a resolution that delivers two states.
“It’s the Holy Land,” says Indyk. “There’s a difference between being dead, and being dead and buried.”