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John Kerry nudges Middle East peace process: Could he be getting somewhere?

Secretary of State John Kerry, in his sixth trip to the Middle East this year, is meeting with Arab League leaders who are behind a renewed version of a 2002 Arab peace initiative with Israel.

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Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a joint press conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, unseen, on Wednesday, July 17, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Amman. Kerry on Wednesday won Arab League backing for his effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, raising hopes for a quick resumption in the stalled negotiations.

Mandel Ngan/AP

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Secretary of State John Kerry came into office a half year ago vowing to make a priority of advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and no one can say he hasn’t kept his word.

Secretary Kerry is on his sixth trip to the region in his short tenure as America’s top diplomat. And the focus of his two-day visit this week to Amman, Jordan – meeting with a group of Arab League leaders who are behind a renewed version of a 2002 Arab peace initiative with Israel – says something about Kerry’s approach to resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry and his aides have been tight-lipped about how they intend to restart negotiations between the two parties that have been in deep freeze since 2010. But the Amman meeting suggests Kerry sees regional support as a key element of any relaunched peace process – just as earlier legs of Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy showed an emphasis on security enticements for the Israelis and economic-development enticements for the Palestinians.

What some are calling the three pillars of Kerry’s approach – security, economic development, and regional support – strikes some former officials and Middle East experts as nothing new. But others say that the combination of Kerry’s perseverance and a turbulent and worrisome Middle East context could be creating new interest in what might look like old ideas – and could lead to a dusting off of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table.

“Kerry doesn’t see this as a lost cause – an uphill battle, yes, but not a lost cause,” says Guy Ziv, an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington and an expert in US-Israel relations. “As intractable as this conflict may seem,” he adds, “it is the one crisis where we are still able to wield some influence, and Kerry is well aware of that.”

Other regional crises – the war in Syria, the tumult in Egypt – suggest waning American influence, others say.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is the lower-hanging fruit at this stage,” says Daniel Levy, who heads the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. Kerry’s efforts to organize with Russia an international conference on Syria are going nowhere, he notes, while US diplomatic overtures to Egypt’s new military-backed leaders and to the Egyptian public don’t appear to have yielded much.

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“Kerry hears as much as anyone else the general reaction to his efforts that goes something like, ‘Really? With Syria, and Egypt, and everything else that’s going on in the region, and you think you can achieve some breakthrough on this conflict?’ ” Mr. Levy says. But he adds that Kerry is clearly sensing that “even creating the context for a breakthrough” is worth the considerable effort.

Rumors continued to circulate that before his trip is set to end Thursday, Kerry might announce a return to peace talks, or perhaps a four-way meeting with Israelis, Palestinians, the United States, and Arab representatives. But State Department officials sought to dampen expectations of a big announcement on this trip, even though Kerry has said he wants to see major progress – presumably a return to the negotiating table – by the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly in late September.

But even if new talks were announced, many regional experts with experience in the decades of US diplomatic effort on this issue remain skeptical that what Kerry is undertaking has much chance of getting beyond some talks to peacemaking.

“Yes there’s been a lot of diplomatic activity, but it hasn’t been made clear yet whether this is peace-oriented or is just more peace process,” says Wayne White, a former State Department Middle East expert and policy-planning official who is now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Based on past experience, one gets the impression that what we’re seeing is process.”

The “obstacles” to serious peacemaking are so onerous that discussions of enticements like economic development can seem like diversions, Mr. White says. As for the sorts of obstacles he means, White cites as examples the Hamas factor in establishing any Palestinian negotiating position and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for “talks without preconditions” – in other words, no concessions.

“The strategic elements of a settlement aren’t there, and once you get a glimpse into that room, it’s not very encouraging,” he says.

Calling the steps that Kerry is following in his diplomatic effort a “strategy” may be going too far, Levy says, although he says it appears Kerry has moved away from the “parameters” approach – such as laying down guideposts like pre-1967 borders before talks get under way – in favor of the “pillars” or enticements for the parties to reengage.

The Amman meeting with Arab leaders fits that approach, Levy says. “Kerry feels it makes it more difficult for the Israeli side to say no if the ‘peace’ to be reached includes the Arabs and isn’t just about the Palestinians,” he says.

For others, Kerry may be pressing to get the parties back to the negotiating table – with the hope that pressure from Mr. Netanyahu’s and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s publics keeps the leaders negotiating.

“Kerry knows as well as anyone else the polls that show solid majorities on both sides support a two-state solution to the conflict,” says Professor Ziv of American University. “If he can get the two parties back to the table, he knows the publics will be supportive.”

Of course a return to talks could produce nothing – as has happened so many times in the past. Getting Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to sit down together again “certainly doesn’t mean Kerry’s going to succeed, and he’s well aware of that,” Ziv says. But, he adds, a seasoned diplomat and politician like Kerry “wouldn’t be risking his credibility and the credibility of the US if he wasn’t making progress and if he didn’t sense that this progress could really lead somewhere.”

But no one thinks that a tantalizing sense of progress is blinding Kerry to the reality that the conflict is ultimately about big issues like land, borders, and identity and that enticing the sides with pledges of security or economic initiatives won’t be enough.

“Kerry is under no illusions,” Levy says. “If you get the first three [pillars] but can’t get the Israeli prime minister to move to a serious conversation about territory, you’re going nowhere.”

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