Best Intentions

07.13.14

Everyone Says John Kerry Should Stay Out of the Middle East

John Kerry wants to broker a deal to stop the violence between Israel and Hamas. But officials and experts on both sides are warning he could do more harm than good.

The Israelis and the Palestinians are resisting Secretary of State John Kerry’s repeated offers to travel to the Middle East and try to help negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Experts on both sides believe he doesn’t have the credibility or ability to do any good if he shows up there.

The White House and State Department have been saying publicly all week that the U.S. is ready and willing to step in and play the role of honest broker to try to stem the escalating cycle of violence gripping Israel and the Gaza strip. The latest variation of the offer came in a personal phone call Thursday between President Obama and Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.

“The United States remains prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement,” a White House read out of the call stated.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday the administration wants to do the same thing it did in Nov. 2012, when Obama sent then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region. She helped negotiate a ceasefire agreement, giving the credit to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.

“The United States used our relationship with countries in the region including Egypt and Turkey and others to bring both sides to the table and create an environment where a cease-fire could be declared and enforced. So we're looking to do something similar again,” Earnest said.

Unfortunately, the U.S. relationships with Egypt and Turkey have both deteriorated since 2012. Morsi was ousted in a military coup and imprisoned, and the new Egyptian leadership has significantly less influence with Hamas. The Turkey-Israel relationship is also in shambles, hurting Ankara’s ability to be constructive player.

And Clinton is gone, replaced by a Secretary in Kerry who may have already used up whatever diplomatic capital he had with the Israelis and the Palestinians. Kerry traveled to Israel 11 times and spent 26 days there since taking office last year, as part of a grueling and ultimately unsuccessful effort to push the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority into a peace agreement.

But Kerry is trying to get in the game; he spoke with Netanyahu Wednesday and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday.

“During both of those calls, the Secretary reiterated our concern over the escalating tensions and restated his own willingness and the willingness of the United States to engage robustly in helping to stop the rocket fire so we can restore calm as soon as possible,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday, noting that Kerry as also been in touch with leaders in Egypt and Qatar.

“I don’t really see the U.S. as having a particularly strong hand in trying to stop the Israelis from doing anything they want to do in Gaza.”

Kerry may be feeling confident coming off what appears to be a successful effort to broker a way forward to resolving Afghanistan’s disputed presidential election. But Kerry doesn’t have the same leverage on either Israel or Hamas. And the violence in the region has already begun.

Besides, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are exactly rolling out the welcome mat for Kerry. American, Israeli, and Palestinian experts and officials this week said Kerry should resist the urge to inject himself into the middle of the crisis.

“Should John Kerry, given his commitment and the direness of the situation, pack his bags?” asked Aaron David Miller, former Middle East negotiator, at an event this week at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“No,” said Shibley Telhami, an Arab-Israeli author, University of Maryland professor, and occasional advisor to the U.S. government. “We have to figure out a role to play, but the question is, where’s the influence going to come from? Who’s got the leverage with the two parties? ... I don’t really see the U.S. as having a particularly strong hand in trying to stop the Israelis from doing anything they want to do in Gaza.”

Robert Danin, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that a Kerry visit would be a poor substitute for a more comprehensive effort by all of the other officials in the U.S. government to engage both sides at the working level. That could be much more effective than a high-profile, one-off high-level Kerry visit.

“Now is a time for active American diplomacy at the level below John Kerry,” he said. “I think we’ve gotten trapped into a mindset that either John Kerry does it or it doesn’t get done.”

Yossi Kuperwasser, Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told reporters this week that negotiations between Israel and Hamas are not on the table anyway. “There will be no negotiations until Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel. That’s it,” he said.

Some experts link the current round of violence directly to Kerry’s failed Middle East Peace process. Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force for Palestine, told The Daily Beast that Kerry’s effort raised expectations on both sides. When the talks crashed, it created a sense of hopelessness that contributed to the environment in which the violence took place.

Lee Smith wrote this week in Tablet magazine that Kerry’s failed peace process actually lit the match for the violence by pushing the two sides into negotiations during a period when both Israelis and Palestinians had little trust in the Obama administration and reason to doubt American credibility in the region.

“At a time of relative peace and quiet, the White House put the Israelis and Palestinians under the spotlight with a buzzer set to go off at the end of April. What both soon realized was that whatever they decided, the Americans weren’t going to be around to give them cover,” he wrote.

Telhami disagreed, saying there was no direct link between Kerry’s failed diplomacy and the current violence because the ingredients that started the crisis were always present.

“If anything, John Kerry succeeded in extending the period of hope for a little bit longer,” he said.

Danin concurred with Telhami, but said that the United States is now looking for a big move because their entire plan for engaging the Middle East ended when the negotiations ceased.

“I don’t think it’s fair to blame John Kerry for the violence. It exists anyway,” he said. “But what there is right now is a diplomatic vacuum. [When] the diplomacy culminated in April, there was no Plan B. There should be some sort of diplomatic fallback position short of an all or nothing approach.”