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What’s up with Kerry in his bid for Mideast peace talks?

Commentary: What we may learn is how the secretary of state handles failure.
John kerry abbas in jordan 05 26Enlarge
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, speaks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at the World Economic Forum at the King Hussein Convention Centre in Jordan on May 26, 2013. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

OWLS HEAD, Maine — Secretary of State John Kerry is just back from yet another visit to the Middle East to jump-start an Israeli-Palestinian peace as part of a longer trip that included stops in Ethiopia and other African hot spots.

He's barely been in the job three months but with his miles piling up, he seems intent on breaking Hillary Clinton's million-mile travel record during her four years as secretary.

A peripatetic secretary of state can be a good thing; promoting US interests, strategic and economic, and just showing the flag around the world, is not a bad way for America's premier diplomat to spend his time.

But as Kerry zooms in on dealing with the modern Middle East's Gordian knot — the current Palestinian-Israeli impasse goes back to the Six-Day War, which is on the verge of its 46th anniversary, one can't help asking, "What am I missing here? What does he know that no one else knows?"

During last week's trip, when Kerry was the prime mover in a World Economic Forum held at the edge of Jordan's Dead Sea — that featured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres, along with the Middle East's greatest hanger-on, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair — Kerry explained his rationale: "The greatest existential threat and the greatest economic threat to both sides is the lack of peace. To not try to head these off would be tragic, and irresponsible."

Well, perhaps. Though trying to do the impossible, and failing, is even more irresponsible. And as for the greatest existential threat, the disintegration of Syria, and the fallout therefrom, looms a little larger. But that's nitpicking — our new Kissinger wannabe has worked out a deal with the Russians to tackle that one as well.

Coincidence or not, The New York Times had an analysis piece in its Sunday News Review section the same day that Kerry was at the Dead Sea, headlined, "What Mideast Crisis? Israelis Have Moved On."

The reporter, the Times correspondent in Israel up until a year ago, had been back for a visit and found that the search for peace is hardly uppermost these days in the minds of most Israelis, leftists or rightists: "Instead of focusing on what has long been seen as their central challenge — how to share this land with another nation — Israelis are largely ignoring it, insisting that the problem is both insoluble for now and less significant than the world thinks. We cannot fix it, many say, but we can manage it. "

Even before the Israelis had psychologically moved on, threading this particular needle, as US politician and businessman George Mitchell was the most recent would-be peacemaker to discover, is a labor that the mighty Hercules would have hoped to avoid.

But here Kerry is, staking his virgin reputation on the hardest foreign policy challenge of them all.

How exactly to parse this? Washington is a complex place, full of big egos, the more so in Congress where yes-men and lobbyists with bags of money surround them. Senators can say one thing one day, and then the next, when they're appealing to a different constituency, say the reverse. Words are just another election tool for congressmen; in diplomacy, words are the key tool of the trade, and resonate long after a senator's promises are forgotten.

In his first term, President Barack Obama put Hillary Clinton on a tight rein: foreign policy, as astute observers have increasingly noted, was moved from State to the White House and the Pentagon.

The two most important international concerns facing Obama four years ago were Afghanistan/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine, issues for which he set up individual czars, effectively removing them from Clinton's oversight.

Not that it mattered. Obama quickly emasculated both appointees — Mitchell, by caving in to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the first opportunity, and Richard Holbrooke, his AfPak designee, by publicly announcing the date for US withdrawal from Afghanistan even as he was in the process of doubling down on US boots on the ground.

Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, was a foreign policy neophyte, an all too-common preference of the American electorate. (Luckily for the rest of us, he had Joe Biden, instead of Dick Cheney, as his vice president, and Bob Gates, not Don Rumsfeld, at Defense.)

Fast forward four years: The possibility of Kerry's resurrecting a successful peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is only slightly more likely than Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan resurrecting the Ottoman Empire. The Israeli public isn't interested. The Israeli leadership, beginning with Netanyahu, is even less interested.

Palestinian leadership is in ever-greater disarray. The West's favorite Palestinian, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is resigning. The Times' articles quotes friends of his saying that if he thought Kerry's initiative were going to go anywhere, he wouldn't be quitting.

Palestinian President Abbas is old, discredited, and no closer to a rapprochement with Hamas than ever. And anyone who believes Obama is going to step out of his preferred rhetorical mode and put real pressure on Israel is as out of touch with Washington as Kerry is with the Middle East.

One thing Kerry must know is that, even were Obama to get tough with Israel, there would be no support from Congress on either side of the aisle. Were an Obama-beleaguered Netanyahu to show up in Washington, they'd fall over themselves as they did a few years back swearing their support for Israel.

So, the question is: What's up with Kerry?

Is it arrogance? Has his ambition blinded him to reality?

We may never find out. But what we are about to find out is how Kerry handles failure. It's one thing, as the new foreign policy mogul, to make a pro forma trip to the Middle East, take the temperature of the opponents and realize that, without at least 100 percent backing from the president, history is not going to change this year in the West Bank.

It's quite another to rush into the war zone, unarmed and unprepared. What impact will failure have on the US relationship with an increasingly hostile Arab world? What will it say to Syria's Assad as Kerry works with Russia to resolve the Middle East's newest intractable problem? What will it convey to China, and indeed our allies, about our diplomacy?

And how does Obama fit in here? Why is he letting his new secretary of state discredit himself before he's even weaned?

A conspiracy theorist would recall that Kerry was Obama's second choice; he really wanted Susan Rice. So Obama gives him a wink and a nod as he goes off the deep end with Israelis and Palestinians, hoping when he's disgraced before the world, he resigns, and then — Rice's unwitting role in the Benghazi debacle accepted by congressional Republicans — Obama can pick her to replace Kerry.

Fat chance; of course I know that's not Obama's plan. But does Obama know what is Kerry's plan?

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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