Written off – but John Kerry is defying the defeatists

World View: The fledgling US Secretary of State's surprising progress towards Israeli-Palestinian talks has made him a hero... for now at least

Share
Related Topics

There were mea culpas aplenty in this part of the world last weekend. John Kerry – to whom few gave much hope of getting the equally stubborn Israelis and Palestinians to even agree to hold peace talks – appears to have got to first base, and if all goes well the two sides will sit down for preliminary discussions on Tuesday.

The leading liberal newspaper in Israel, Haaretz, has gone from describing America's newish Secretary of State as "like a naive and clumsy diplomat who has been acting like a bull in the china shop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict", to hailing his achievement as transforming from "Mr Bean's ultimate disaster to Tom Cruise's mission impossible".

And it's not just the otherwise excellent Haaretz. Back in March, following Mr Kerry's first visit, with his boss Barack Obama, I wrote that for all the Obamamania and stardust, the duo achieved virtually nothing on their visit.

So it's hats off to Mr Kerry for his tenacity, hard work and bloody mindedness – the parties in this fragile part of the world are as close to direct negotiations as at any time during the past three years. Dealing with ideological factions on either side of the divide here must drive even seasoned diplomats to despair, and Mr Kerry's achievement – if the Israelis and Palestinians do make it to negotiating table next week – should be acknowledged.

But now what? Having reached this stage in 2010, the talks collapsed within weeks (or hours, if some reports are to be believed). For all the plaudits, and his four-month marathon diplomatic effort, Mr Kerry did not get precisely what he wanted: he wasn't able to announce a resumption – no matter how it was spun – but rather that the two "reached an agreement that establishes a basis for direct final- status negotiations". Speaking to senior Palestinian officials last week, it is clear that they already feel that what they say they were promised is now on shifting sand.

Mr Kerry's approach to this part of the world stands in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton. Mrs Clinton, a presidential hopeful in 2016, largely ignored the Middle East peace process, and favoured lower hanging fruit elsewhere. Having failed to get elected to the White House in 2004, Mr Kerry is unlikely to run again, and thus, politically at least, he is less restricted on what he can do. But for all his welcome ambition, the jury is still out. Indeed, it may well be his ambition that gets the better of him in the Middle East.

The situation in both Israel and the Occupied Territories is delicate. In Israel, a recent general election brought to power a coalition that was more minded on fixing the economy than on sorting out the mess with its neighbourhoods. On the international front, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is much more concerned with what's happening in Tehran, rather than in Ramallah.

Among the Palestinians too, the timing of the latest push for talks is questionable. President Mahmoud Abbas faces the threat of an increasingly popular Hamas in the West Bank, with the divisions between the two Palestinian factions as wide as ever. Palestinians are rightly concerned about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but unlike the last time the two sides met, they have been unable to secure a construction freeze.

Elsewhere in the region, Mr Kerry's performance leaves more unanswered questions. The situation in Syria gets worse by the day; America's flip-flopping on whether or not to arm rebel groups, its indecision on making a call on the use of chemical weapons and its inability to organise a peace conference is lamentable. It is not all Mr Kerry's fault. It was Mr Obama who first spoke of chemical weapons and red lines, but it is Mr Kerry's job to resolve the situation (and to sort out his boss's mess). Diplomats say that the horrors in Syria can only be brought to an end by diplomatic means, which is now probably true, but Mr Kerry's much-hyped peace conference in Geneva appears now to be unlikely to take place.

America's biggest Arab ally is Egypt and the ties with the Egyptian military are strong. Because of these ties, the US looked weak when the army overthrew the distasteful, but nonetheless elected, Morsi government. Egypt is the most important of all Middle Eastern countries and, as the reported deaths of more than 70 people on Friday night demonstrate, the situation there is now out of control.

It is early days in Mr Kerry's career as Secretary of State, and he may well achieve great things in the future. So far however, at least as far as the Middle East is concerned, America's leading diplomat has improvements to make.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links