WASHINGTON – Evoking the U.S. shuttle diplomacy of decades past, Secretary of State John Kerry is making his third trip to the Middle East in a span of just two weeks in a fresh bid to restart long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Though expectations are low for any breakthrough on Kerry’s trip, which begins Saturday, his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders represent some of the Obama administration’s most sustained efforts at engagement in a part of the world that has frustrated American administrations for the past six decades.
His diplomacy will be based on what he hears from the parties, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. Kerry, she said, will be making clear that both sides have to want to get back to the negotiating table and that they’ve also got to recognize – both parties – that compromises and sacrifices are going to have to be made if we’re going to be able to help.
Kerry is going at a precarious time. Overnight and into Wednesday, Israel and Gaza militants engaged in the heaviest fighting since a cease-fire was declared in November. No injuries were reported on either side.
Kerry will stop first in Turkey, where he’ll seek to build on recent efforts by that nation and Israel to repair ties and coordinate on stemming violence in Syria. Kerry then travels to Jerusalem and to Ramallah in the West Bank.
U.S. officials say Kerry is primarily interested in gauging what the Israelis and the Palestinians are willing to do to restart direct negotiations that have been mostly frozen for the past 4 1/2 years. He’ll meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Trying to avoid raising expectations unrealistically, Nuland said Kerry’s trip isn’t the start of a new era of shuttle diplomacy, a concept that got its start with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during his regular travels back and forth to end the 1973 Mideast War and secure peace between Israel and some of its neighbors. Similar efforts took place under later secretaries James A. Baker III, Warren Christopher and Condoleezza Rice.
But it undeniably marks a shift after President Obama largely kept the Arab-Israeli conflict at arm’s length during his first term.
Despite publicly challenging Israel to halt settlement construction in disputed territory and becoming the first U.S. president to publicly endorse Israel’s pre-1967 borders as the basis of a two-state solution, Obama and Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, presented no grand peace plan and failed to produce any sustained, high-level diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Clinton avoided Israel and the Palestinian territories for nearly two years at one point, and only open war between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip last November prompted frantic U.S. diplomatic action.
The last significant peace negotiations occurred when President George W. Bush brought leaders to Annapolis, Md., with the goal of a treaty by the end of 2008. After a two-year hiatus, talks that began under the Obama administration’s guidance in 2010 quickly fizzled out.
Hopes for progress still seem bleak. Israel’s new government, with a large hard-liner contingent, has shown no sign of giving ground to the Palestinians on sensitive issues such as Jewish settlements in contested lands, future borders or the question of Jerusalem – which both sides claim for a capital.
Power among the Palestinians, meanwhile, is split between those who demand tough Israeli concessions before talks can occur and those who simply reject the notion of negotiations.
Neither Abu Mazen nor Netanyahu is a candidate for an end to the conflict, said Yossi Alpher, who advised former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, referring to Abbas by his nom de guerre. Kerry, he said, should seek merely some kind of partial solution.
Looking for an elusive path back to negotiations, U.S. officials said the Obama administration is exploring making security guarantees for the Jordan Valley, a section of the West Bank that stretches along the border with Jordan.
Israel has long demanded the guarantees as part of any treaty establishing an independent Palestine, though the issue has been overshadowed by more sensitive matters.