U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intends to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the center of his diplomatic activities and to strive to achieve a breakthrough agreement between the two sides during President Obama's second term in office, according to the assessment of well-placed sources in Washington and New York.
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The sources said that Kerry's decision not to include Jerusalem in his 10-day tour of Europe and the Middle East that begins Sunday has been misinterpreted as an indication of a "hands off" policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In addition to the difficulty of holding substantive talks in Israel while coalition negotiations are ongoing, the sources said that it was the White House that asked Kerry to skip his planned stopovers in Jerusalem and Ramallah so as not to "steal the President's thunder" in advance of Obama's scheduled March 20 visit to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. According to these sources, the White House indicated that a visit by Kerry at this time might obstruct the "meticulous preparations" for the presidential visit. Nonetheless, the overall impression left by the discussions conducted in recent weeks by Kerry and his advisers with European, Israeli and Arab officials, as well as American Jewish leaders, is that the former Massachusetts senator is "determined to the point of obsession," as one skeptical interlocutor put it, to change the tone and direction of relations between Israel and the Palestinians during his term as Secretary of State. "He sees it as the holy mission of his life," the source said.
Kerry is convinced that his years of experience with the region and his deep personal relationships with many of its main protagonists, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, place him in a unique position to succeed where his predecessors have failed and to bring about not only a resumption of talks but a long-term agreement as well.
Contrary to Obama and the White House, who appear to be focusing on a "pivot" of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia and the Pacific, Kerry believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, is and will continue to be a crucial element in America's strategic position in the Middle East and around the world.
In internal discussions, American officials have also described the resumption of a diplomatic process with Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad as a "stopgap emergency measure" aimed at avoiding renewed violence, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. Preventing all three of those developments are viewed as critical not only for Israel but for the stability of Jordan and the international stature of the United States.
In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, Kerry said the Israeli-Palestinian issue insinuated itself into every Middle Eastern issue. "So much of what we aspire to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf, all of this is tied to what can or doesn't happen with respect to Israel-Palestine," he said. "And in some places it's used as an excuse. In other places it's a genuine, deeply felt challenge."
The sources said that while the main focus of Obama's talks in Israel will be the Syrian and Iranian issues and the American wish for Israel to give more time for diplomacy and sanctions against Tehran to work, the visit is also meant to "lay the groundwork" for Kerry's subsequent foray into the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Kerry and his advisers, who met on Thursday with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and who have also held discussions with Netanyahu adviser Yaakov Amidror, are engaged in preparing position papers that will serve as the basis for the Administration's eventual proposals to the sides.
During his upcoming talks in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Egypt, Kerry is expected to hear a singular message urging Washington to get more actively involved in Middle East peacemaking and to pressure Israel to make concessions. By the time he arrives in Jerusalem next month, the sources said, "Kerry will have both the outline and the justifications" for what he wishes to achieve.
Obama, the sources said, does not intend to get personally involved in Kerry's initiatives but he will give him "enough rope" to try and move the process forward. If Kerry feels that "presidential intervention" is appropriate, then Obama will do so "at the right time," they added.
With the expected Senate confirmation this week of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's appointment as Secretary of Defense, the so-called "Quartet of Senators" - which includes Obama, Hagel, Kerry and Vice President Biden - will be established to navigate U.S. policy toward the Middle East. The four share the view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to the future of the Middle East, but Kerry, it seems, is more convinced than the others that something can be done about it as well.