Four months into his term, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying, simultaneously, to end two of the world’s most intractable conflicts: the Syrian civil war and the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
The two issues, according to an aide, have consumed the vast majority of Kerry’s time and energy. He has already flown more than 100,000 miles to 23 countries, including four trips to Israel, since he took office Feb. 1.
What is unclear, however, is whether all the movement will lead to progress or whether it will go down as the quixotic, if laudable, efforts of an enthusiastic new secretary of state.
Palestinian officials have said Kerry has given them until June 7 to let the United States know whether they are serious about the possibility of reviving peace talks.
While Kerry has not explicitly confirmed the deadline — and it could be extended — on May 24 he said, “We’re getting towards a time now where hard decisions need to be made.”
Even before taking office, Kerry made no secret of his desire to try to solve the conflict. But he has acknowledged the deep skepticism, saying a week ago that “it is famously reputed to be diplomatic quicksand.”
Having spent most of his career in the U.S. Senate, where personal relationships are vital to getting things done, Kerry believes in the virtue of face-to-face diplomacy and has used his facility with languages to slip into French, German, Italian, and occasionally even a word of Arabic to charm audiences.
However, he has been subjected to some withering criticism.
“Despite his good intentions, Kerry so far looks like a naive and clumsy diplomat who has been acting like a bull in the china shop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” wrote Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz.
For all Kerry’s efforts, questions linger about whether President Barack Obama has any real willingness to try a second time on Middle East peace, having promised to make it a priority at the start of his first term but failing to make any progress.
“The perception in the region is this is a process of buying time … that the White House is not serious about committing to what it takes to get this issue resolved,” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
“I don’t think people are questioning the motives of Kerry. Everyone thinks he is serious about this, and he is serious about this — but he is just acting alone,” he said.
A senior U.S. official disputed the notion that Kerry was naive and said the Obama administration was prepared to abandon the effort if it judges that the Israelis and Palestinians are not serious about pursuing peace.
“That’s what shows he’s not naive,” the official said about Kerry’s willingness to pull back if he does not see both sides as ready. “There’s too many things going on in the world… You could bang your head on this for years and years and years.”
Rob Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank said that Obama’s legendary control over foreign policy decision-making meant Kerry must have had a White House green light to explore the Syria and Israeli-Palestinian initiatives.
“Clearly these approaches have been initiated and designed by Secretary Kerry,” Danin said. “But given the equities involved, it is inconceivable to think that he is freelancing.”