Kerry tiptoeing through Middle East minefield

opinion January 10, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Washington's man takes the cautious road towards Israel-Palestine peace talks, but other regional conflicts could soon call him away

US Secretary of State John Kerry has so far made 10 trips to the Middle East in the hope of persuading the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a framework for talks that would lead to a peace deal.
Despite much going on elsewhere in the region – a civil war in Syria, the assertiveness of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the anti-military protests in Egypt – Kerry continues to pour a great deal of his resources and energy into this particular conflict.
Though his efforts have effected little change so far, one thing he has done is place Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the international spotlight. 
By doing so, Kerry is hoping the burden of leadership these two men carry will force them into making concessions. 
It’s a long shot, but it’s worth a try. And this is where the outside powers come in.
Kerry knows that, if he can’t persuade neighbouring countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia to exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority, Abbas – swayed by his own people’s anger at the very idea of concessions – will probably wriggle out of any major commitment toward peace.
The same goes for Netanyahu, though Kerry does not have to visit Europe or the United Nations to realise there is growing fatigue among these powers over Israel’s unwillingness to compromise. The growing international isolation is not good for either side. But for the peace framework to have any teeth, the target country has to feel the pinch.
Kerry has chosen to focus on “core issues”, shifting away from the “two states” solution to avoid a battle between the leaders over the terms of that accord. This is not to say that the two-states debate will not be addressed. It will, just not now. 
Kerry’s quest for agreement on “core issues” requires the two leaders to make tangible and thus difficult decisions. It appears as though Abbas must recognise Israel as a Jewish state and drop any objections to the presence of Israeli troops on the eastern border of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, must agree to Jerusalem being the capital of Palestine and to abide by Palestinian state boundaries based on territory prior to the 1967 war. 
If Abbas and Natanyahu choose instead to drag their feet, Kerry has to make clear that their political capital in Washington and other parts of the world will diminish. 
After all, Kerry could be spending more time where he is needed, such as in Egypt, where a short-lived victory for the pro-democracy movement is being crushed by a military-backed interim government. Or in Syria, where the focus of attention over the past few days has shifted to the fighting between anti-government forces and militants under an al-Qaeda offshoot calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
And let’s not forget Afghanistan, where a deal for a US military presence after the official pullout has yet to be agreed upon.