John Kerry is Obama’s Middle East canary

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, February 7, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter
US Secratary of State John Kerry (Photo: AP)

US Secratary of State John Kerry (Photo: AP)

In one of his first acts as the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry spoke to both Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, to stress his desire to jump-start peace talks.

He delivered a similar message to Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas. And these are not just diplomatic niceties that Mr Kerry must engage with at the beginning of his term. Together with Barack Obama’s planned visit to Israel next month, his announced visit to the area in the coming weeks appears to be a sign that this second-term administration is renewing its impetus to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

John Kerry could be the greatest peacemaker the world has ever known. But it is hard to imagine that circumstances have so dramatically changed as to make a peace agreement possible now. It has not been on the cards for the past 13 years. What seems more plausible is that Mr Obama recognises the value of appearing engaged in this intractable issue for tactical reasons.

The president took it upon himself to bring peace to the deadlocked Palestinian-Israeli dispute early on in his first term. He put his presidential prestige on the line by appointing former US Senator George Mitchell as a special envoy for the purpose. Mr Mitchell was his very first diplomatic appointment — barely a week into his term.

If Kerry fails in his peace mission, the president’s prestige will suffer little

The signal was strong and it was backed up by a flurry of activities, trips, bridging proposals, papers and non-papers. It came to naught. They had stumbled on predictable obstacles and visible wires.

By the time Mr Obama had reached the halfway point of his first term, his policy posture uncannily resembled that of his predecessor’s first term — keep a distance because the time is not ripe for a solution.

Presidential rhetoric might have suggested otherwise — but speeches make little difference to policy when reality ignores them. It is entirely possible then that the president, having recognised the futility of peace-making, put the conflict on to automatic pilot.

Seen through these lenses, Mr Kerry’s newly found enthusiasm for peace-making might be keeping in line with George W Bush’s legacy on the Palestinian-Israeli brief.

President Bush, after all, gave a full mandate to his own Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to pursue the same goal. Ms Rice did her best — which amounted to little in the end. Despite the fireworks of the Annapolis conference and the diplomatic promises that it offered, Ms Rice’s peace-making journey reached a dead end.

Mr Kerry may or may not end up the same way — if he fails, the president’s prestige will suffer little damage.

And if Mr Kerry’s efforts create an opening, the president will bring the weight of the presidency to the table. Whatever benefit may come, it will belong to Mr Obama.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington DC

Last updated: 3:46pm, February 7 2013