John Kerry's Middle East Mystery Tour

AP Photo/Paul J. Richards, Pool

The mysterious Mr. Kerry has come to the Middle East and gone. The secretary of state promises to return soon, but does not tell us exactly when. In Jerusalem and Ramallah, he says, he listened to leaders' suggestions for restarting peace talks. He does not say what those suggestions were. Curiously polite things happen while he in in the neighborhood. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for instance, postponed his previously announced trip to Gaza, lest he cause Israel grief. Kerry does not explain how he inspires such thoughtfulness.

John Kerry is quite open, though, about his motives: He wants to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, right away, soon, to conduct them "in a clear and precise, predetermined manner" toward the agreement that has eluded every previous peace effort.

The only mystery here is the one created by broken expectations, which say that Washington should treat Israelis and Palestinians with benign neglect, that the Israel-Palestine problem is where America's good intentions go to die. Why are Kerry and his new boss, Barack Obama, trying again? How can they coax the negotiators back into a room together and cajole them to follow a strict agenda?

The "why" part is straightforward: More than ever, America has an urgent interest in Israeli-Palestinian peace. The fallen autocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, the demands for democratization in countries such as Jordan, and the political rise of Islamic movements have weakened American influence in the region. The decades-old tension between America's alliance with Israel and its ties with Arab countries has become sharper.

Brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will not bring calm to the Middle East. It will project power, drastically improve America's image, and make it much easier for U.S. allies in the region to work together. Washington has little ability to influence the outcome in Syria, for instance. But it can repair cooperation between Israel, Turkey, and Jordan as they cope with the collapsed state on their borders.

Besides that, political conditions are slightly better than when Obama tried during his last term to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate. Neither Obama nor his secretary of State is running for president in 2016, which frees them from a bit of domestic pressure. After the last Israeli election, Netanyahu is more concerned about domestic pressure, this time coming from the dovish side of the public. This doesn't mean he wants to reach a deal. It does mean that he wants to avoid blame for a stalemate.


The Obama-Kerry method has several facets. Obama's speech in Jerusalem was aimed at increasing support in Israel for negotiations. By returning often to the region, Kerry's job is to show that the speech wasn't a one-time gesture, and that Washington wants results. Kerry is being very public about listening attentively to Netanyahu and Abbas, and about expecting them to improve their proposals before he comes back. At his departing press conference on Tuesday, the word he kept repeating was "homework," casting himself as the tough, friendly teacher sent to straighten out a middle-school class of slackers. You kids can do better, you can hear Coach Kerry saying. He is insistently quiet about what he actually hears from Abbas and Netanyahu. "This is going to be contained, it’s going to be tightly held," he said. That translates as: If I told you what they were saying, you'd see how far apart they still are, how impossibly stubborn, and that would ruin the mood of progress in which I want to trap them.

The gestures he tries to coax from local leaders are meant to add to that upbeat mood, and show that America can get things done. Erdoğan's Gaza visit would have emboldened the Hamas hardliners in power there, weakened Abbas, and undermined the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation that Obama has imposed. Erdoğan agreed to stay home.

Turkish press reports, meanwhile, say that Kerry has asked Ankara to intercede with Khaled Meshaal, the relatively moderate Hamas leader who was re-elected last week under pressure from Turkey, Egypt, and Qatar. (The stress here is relatively moderate.) If the Turkish reports are true, Kerry's gambit is to inch Meshaal toward renouncing violence, recognizing Israel, and meeting Western conditions for a Palestinian unity government. That, in return, would undercut the Israeli argument that it's pointless to negotiate when the Palestinians are divided.

Departing Israel, Kerry announced that he'd received Netanyahu's approval for Palestinian economic development in Area C—the 62 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control. Area C contains and connects Israel's settlements. The religious right party in Netanyahu's coalition, Jewish Home, calls for annexing Area C. Palestinian businessmen and officials argue that without its land reserves, developing Palestinian industry is impossible. Since Netanyahu has claimed he wants to improve the Palestinian economy, it's hard for him to reject the plan. Since it means conceding some control in Area C, it pulls him in a direction that he doesn't like and that threatens his coalition. (Small wonder that as soon as Kerry left, an unnamed Israeli official—speaking for Netanyahu or perhaps trying to embarrass him—dismissed this and other Kerry proposals.)

Here we reach Kerry's dilemma. Politically, Abbas can't afford to resume negotiations that are likely to fail again. Netanyahu can't afford to join talks that might actually succeed.

"If Netanyahu thinks there's a process that will inevitably lead to … territorial withdrawal, he might say ... I'm going to stop early on," Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, told me this week. "Kerry wants to get him into a process that is a little less [scary] in the hope that the process itself creates conditions … that would make it possible to contemplate concessions later. That's the tricky part," says Kurtzer, because Netanyahu know what Kerry is trying to back him into. The secretary of State, says Kurtzer, has to "create a situation where the domestic costs of saying no are difficult to calculate."


One more piece of the Obama-Kerry strategy is a self-created deadline: Kerry's listening shuttle is to last eight weeks, starting from Obama's visit late last month. The time limit is smart; it creates public pressure, especially since the media pay more attention to a diplomatic story when a clock is running out. But by late May, it's unlikely that Kerry will have heard anything distantly related to an agreed negotiating agenda. At that point, Kerry could hold a final press conference and go home, and the administration will bear another diplomatic defeat.

More likely, Kerry will say nothing of failure. Rather, he or Obama will soon set a date for talks, an American agenda, and possibly American parameters for a two-state agreement. Obama and Kerry will assiduously deny they are imposing an American plan. The parameters, they will say, merely express what Kerry heard while listening so sympathetically in all those meetings. A new countdown, to negotiations or crisis, will begin. Netanyahu and Abbas will have to choose between showing up and saying no, between accepting the agenda and being named by a sad-voiced Kerry as the saboteur of peace hopes.

For this to be a real threat, the American agenda must appear reasonable and practical—not necessarily to the politicians now in power, but to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu and Abbas must believe that saying no carries the high price of looking weak, fearful, and unwilling to seize a real hope for a solution.

And for that to happen, Kerry and Obama will have to complement the talks in closed rooms with open diplomacy. Obama's speech in Jerusalem is the starting point of negotiating with the public, not the end. Airport press conferences are insufficient; they yield a few quickly forgotten snippets in news stories. Obama and Kerry will need to work in something closer to campaign mode, finding high-profile ways to make Israelis and Palestinians feel that a two-state agreement is not only a good idea, but an achievable one. If Mr. Kerry's strategy is close to what's described here, he will soon have to become less mysterious. 

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