John Kerry has returned to the Middle East — focused mostly on Israel and Palestine — for the sixth time since he was nominated secretary of state in February. However, despite Kerry's optimistic outlook, the situation in the Levant is no more ripe for peace than it was a few years ago. As such, his shuttle diplomacy is largely being wasted.
Kerry's incrementalist approach towards the Middle East peace process is reminiscent of the days of Henry Kissinger. On each trip, he spends face time with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, and tries to address the concerns of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. When it comes to Palestine, Kerry has offered to consider the Arab Peace Initiative established by the Arab League in 2002, and announced a privately funded $4 billion program to jump-start the Palestinian economy. With regard to Israel, he appointed a retired U.S. general and former commander in Afghanistan to serve as a special envoy on security issues.
These efforts are not enough to break down the impasse between the Israelis and Palestinians, however. Even after Kerry's fifth visit, he has unable to get the two sides talk directly, which they have not done since 2010.
The White House has given Kerry until September to initiate peace talks, and has largely taken a backseat role in the secretary’s diplomacy. Considering the sordid and tense past between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, that may be a smart thing. Although Israel and the United States were in lockstep when it came to significant issues like the Mavi Marmara affair, Iran, and the Palestinian UN bid, Israelis have been uneasy about the president's administration since Obama’s early calls for a settlement freeze, and his perceived favoring of the Arab world at the beginning of his first term. Even though relations have warmed since then, thanks to Obama's trip to Israel and U.S. funding for Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, Kerry is still the superior choice for negotiations.
Expectations for peace remain low, as the Palestinian Authority remains divided between the Islamist Hamas in Gaza and the moderate Fatah in the West Bank, and peace cannot be reached unless Gaza is brought to the table. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has become more conservative, and even less likely to support plans for a two-state solution. Finally, Palestinians and Israelis remain divided on key issues such as the division of Jerusalem, Israeli security issues, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The monthly Peace Index poll of Jewish Israelis found that only 22% of respondents said that Kerry had high chances of success.
Israeli government policy continues to reflect the unlikelihood of peace. While Kerry was on his last trip, a local housing agency in Israel approved the construction of 69 settlement homes in annexed East Jerusalem. Palestinians remain firm in their preconditions for talks, including Israel’s withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the release of all long-serving prisoners, and cessation of settlement construction. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's precondition is that there be no preconditions. As such, it's impossible for Kerry to even initiate talks.
Kerry should be applauded for his earnest and driven efforts to negotiate peace, but the reality is much grimmer. Palestinians and Israelis are no more willing to negotiate now than they were under the Bush administration, and as such, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be seen as pressing – especially considering the other issues developing in the Middle East that could jeopardize American interests in the region.