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Slow progress: John Kerry’s efforts towards an Israeli/Palestinian peace deal are admirable. But he cannot neglect the broader context

Mr Kerry devotes the bulk of his energies to a problem whose solution has eluded his every predecessor

For his persistence at least, John Kerry must be admired – but less so, perhaps, for his priorities. This week the Secretary of State wrapped up his 10th mission of Middle East diplomacy during his first year in charge of US foreign policy. Yet for all his efforts, there is little outward evidence of real progress towards a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, beyond that familiar stand-by, honed by six decades of failed peace making, that at least the two sides are talking.

That may be true. But amid the current turmoil that grips the region, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute now feels like a sideshow, conditioned by more momentous issues playing out all around it. These include the tragic souring of the Arab Spring; Iran’s nuclear programme, which Israel regards as a far greater danger to its security than unending conflict with the Palestinians; and, above all, the horrific civil war in neighbouring Syria, where the conflict now threatens to merge with the unrest in Iraq and spark a generalised Sunni/Shia conflagration – one where Washington now acknowledges that Iran may have a role to play.

Yet Mr Kerry devotes the bulk of his energies to a problem whose solution has eluded his every predecessor, even when, as in Bill Clinton’s attempt in 2000, US mediation was led by the President himself. This time, President Obama – bruised by his first-term failure to restart negotiations – has conspicuously stayed out of the fray. But without direct and sustained involvement at the very highest level, no deal is likely.

Mr Kerry seems to believe that by forcing the two sides to keep at it a solution can emerge. His goal is a “framework” agreement, to be achieved by April, setting out the parameters of a two-state solution. Armed with this common vision, Israelis and Palestinians will then be able to work out the details. But it is unclear how this formulation differs in practice from the interim agreements, road maps and other concoctions of diplo-speak that have cloaked 60-plus years of stalemate.

The broad outlines of any settlement have long been obvious. A two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders, but with land swaps to acknowledge the realities of major existing Israeli settlements; and a shared Jerusalem, with only the tiniest symbolic right of return for Palestinian refugees. In the Middle East peace process, however, where disagreement on a specific can be so easily used to derail talks in their entirety, the devil lies in every detail.

It is no different now. Some see the secrecy which surrounds the substance of the talks as positive, a proof that the two sides are negotiating in earnest. But there still has been no meeting between the two leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader has a coalition to preserve, while deep divisions remain between Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions. Israeli settlement-building meanwhile continues. Indeed, the suspicion is strong that Israel is talking not so much with the intention of reaching a deal, but of silencing foreign criticism.

Mr Kerry toils on. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that we are watching the indomitable pursing the unreachable – and that his admirable energy might be more urgently channelled elsewhere.