John Kerry Leads America’s Latest Quixotic Quest For Middle East Peace

Secretary of State Kerry becomes the latest American official to wade into the Middle East's longest lasting quagmire.


Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he called a “basis” for restarting peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians:

AMMAN, Jordan — Israeli and Palestinian officials agreed to take steps toward resuming formal peace negotiations, after an intensive round of American shuttle diplomacy “established a basis” for the first direct talks in three years, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday.

The preliminary agreement is the first incremental success for the Obama administration in trying to broker a Middle East peace agreement after an attempt at the outset of President Obama’s first term ended in acrimony.

After multiple meetings with both parties in recent weeks, Mr. Kerry, speaking after a session here in Amman, said that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, had made courageous decisions and he was “hopeful” that talks would resume.

Mr. Kerry said that if “everything goes as expected,” senior Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would join him in Washington within the next week or so to begin initial talks. They would make a further announcement at that time.

There was no indication that either the Israelis or Palestinians had compromised on core issues — such as ending Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank or allowing Palestinians to claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state — that have sunk previous negotiations. Rather, this round of diplomacy was very preliminary, aimed at getting the parties back into negotiating face to face.

But after years of stalemate in which the prospects of creating side-by-side Israeli and Palestinian states seemed to fade, even as a goal of American and regional diplomacy, the resumption of a peace process marks a shift in politics-as-usual in the region.

Mr. Kerry said that the two sides had agreed that only he would make statements about the peace process until then. The diplomats to meet in Washington are Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator; Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister, who is in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians; and Isaac Molho, an aide to Mr. Netanyahu.

“On behalf of President Obama, I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement that establishes a basis for resuming direct final status negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Mr. Kerry said. “This is a significant and welcome step forward.

“The agreement is still in the process of being formalized, so we are absolutely not going to talk about any of the elements now.”

So, it looks like the Obama Administration is going to head down the same road that its predecessors have and try to solve the seemingly unsolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with the added fun of trying to do so at the same time that there’s a civil war going on in Syria, a terrorist group in charge of the Gaza Strip, and unrest that could last for who knows how long gripping Egypt. It seems to be a crusade that every President since Nixon has decided to have a go it, some with more success than others but, on balance, without really solving the real problems at the root of the conflict at all. Because, in reality, that’s not going to happen unless and until the parties involved want to do it. So, pardon my cynicism about the whole endeavor but history tells us to view all of this with a health dose of skepticism.

Indeed, as Jonathan Tobin notes, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical:

The reason why rational observers have been so wary of Kerry’s initiative is not just the fact that the Palestinians had no interest in returning to negotiations they’ve been boycotting for four and a half years. Both Israel and the Palestinians didn’t wish to obstruct Kerry’s desire for talks. He might have left off once the Palestinians demonstrated their lack of interest but since he persisted in this manner, they felt they had no choice but to show up.

But Abbas and the PA are too weak to agree to any deal that would conclusively end a conflict that neither Hamas nor much of Fatah actually wants to end. Recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders might be drawn is something that no Palestinian leader can afford to do at this point in history. The culture of Palestinian politics that has revolved around the delegitimization of Israel and Jewish history makes it impossible. That’s why they’ve already rejected three Israelis offers of a Palestinian state including almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. So even if Netanyahu were foolish enough to agree to withdrawals that would, in effect, recreate the independent Palestinian terror state that already exists in Gaza in the West Bank, Abbas still can’t say yes.

But by forcing this confrontation at a time when conditions simply don’t exist for a resolution of the conflict, Kerry is not just occupying himself with an issue that is clearly less pressing that the other crises in the Middle East like Egypt, Syria or the Iranian nuclear threat. Since failure is foreordained and the Palestinians are likely to bolt the talks at the first opportunity, what will follow will be far worse than merely a continuation of the present stalemate. The Palestinians will treat any outcome — even one created by their intransigence — as an excuse for either an upsurge in violence against Israel or an effort to use their status at the United Nations to work to further isolate the Jewish state.

And the Israeli’s will use it as an excuse to ramp up settlement activity while further clamping down on the restrictions placed on Gaza and, to some extent, the West Bank.

The one thing about this whole conflict that seems abundantly clear at this point is that most of the “easy” issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have long ago been dealt with, both during the Clinton and Bush 43 Administrations primarily. Since then, the two sides have essentially been dancing around each other while ignoring the issues that have been ignored up until now, namely the ultimate borders of any Palestinian state and the extremely sensitive question of the final status of Jerusalem, Neither of those issues are going to be dealt with by interference from the outside, they are going to have to be dealt with by the parties themselves when those parties are ready to deal with them. In order for that to happen, though, there will have to be answers to the question of what happens to the Israeli West Bank settlements and what happens to Gaza, which is currently controlled by an entity that both refuses to negotiate with Israel and which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel as a state. As long as that’s true, then I don’t see how any ultimate solution is ever going to come.

As for Secretary Kerry’s involvement, I think The Onion captured it best earlier this week — Man Who Couldn’t Defeat George W. Bush Attempting To Resolve Israel-Palestine Conflict.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    On one hand, intractable ethnic conflicts can be resolved-see Ulster.
    OTOH, I have to agree that Kerry is pursuing the Israel-Palestinian peace process now for no really good reason. For one thing, there really are bigger fish to fry in the Middle East now than Israel-Palestine-unrest in Egypt, civil war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear efforts. Those should be focus of US diplomatic efforts, IMO.
    Also , I see no particular reason to believe that negotiations will succeed this time. I guess trying one more time won’t hurt.

  2. Woody says:

    Not to mention a rather pointed disinclination on the part of the Israeli ruling coalition to halt ultra-Orthodox extremists from controversial settlement practices as well.

    Further, the situation will take on an even greater tension over water rights as climate change continues.

    I understand the inclination towards cynicism, but our own domestic politics have us completely intertwined into this Escher puzzle. I guess I would rather we attempt to negotiate peace rather than the alternative.

  3. JohnMcC says:

    Quoting at considerable length from Commentary on this subject, without balancing quotes from other sources gives a predetermined conclusion. Of course, they have a right to their point of view. It is not the only one. And those who disagree are not analogous to the Onion.

    If the Palestinian–Israeli conflict has shrunk in importance it is because two things have happened; the first is of course that “Arab Spring” revolutions (including Turks and Kurds, of course) have completely altered the landscape. But the second is that the Isaelis have almost completed the subjugation and colonization of the “West Bank”.

  4. Dave Schuler says:


    To the extent that it was resolved the conflict in Northern Ireland was resolved because the funding that supported the terrorist activities dried up.

  5. Gustopher says:

    It seems that Israelis are generally pretty content with the current situation, so I don’t see any reason to think that peace talks would succeed.

    If the Israelis aren’t actually content, their policies are completely screwed up and counterproductive.

    I think Kerry’s time would be better spent windsurfing, golfing, or learning to play the mountain dulcimer or something.

  6. Tillman says:

    So, it looks like the Obama Administration is going to head down the same road that its predecessors have and try to solve the seemingly unsolvable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians with the added fun of trying to do so at the same time that there’s a civil war going on in Syria, a terrorist group in charge of the Gaza Strip, and unrest that could last for who knows how long gripping Egypt.

    Honestly, contra you and stonetools, this seems like the reason they would push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Egypt is at the beginnings of a possible civil war the U.S. cannot see a particularly good end to, Syria is already fullscale, and all you need to really get a good World War III groove on is increasing unrest in any other neighboring country to Israel. This could be off the mark, but perhaps this is long-term strategery at work: cap the bottle on what you most wield influence over in the hope that it will garner you further opportunities down the road.

    That doesn’t mean skepticism is wrong or undeserved. Skepticism is the only reasonable position on any set of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But saying that attempting the peace talks will have no good end in and of themselves is shortsighted in my view.