Religious references readily come to mind when considering the seemingly endless conflicts in the Mideast. “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job,” said Jesus’ disciple, James, underscoring the importance of patience as well as faith in handling severe reversals and frustrations (James 5:11).
Secretary of State John Kerry needs patience as he courageously tackles the intense, ingrained hostility separating Israelis and Palestinians. This week, he convened negotiators from both sides at the State Department, reviving peace talks that had fallen apart three years ago. Any gains will take time.
Kerry’s initiative is rightly compared to determined efforts of predecessors Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Both worked, respectively, in the aftermath of regional wars: the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Neither man achieved comprehensive peace, but each eased tensions. In the intensive and explosive context of the Mideast, that counts as progress.
Like those earlier secretaries, Kerry is comfortable with details of diplomacy. He’s disciplined and focused, aware that breakthroughs are usually a result of private negotiation. He has demonstrated good management and selected skillful deputies. This week, he appointed Martin Indyk — an effective U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration — as his point person for the talks.
The United States plays a fundamental role in serving as catalyst for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The Obama administration has a range of ways to apply pressure in the wider regional context.
Israel depends more than ever on American good will as well as aid. The alliance is based on powerful cultural and historical roots. The growth of Islamic extremism underscores the importance of Israel’s ties with the United States. And Iran’s ominous development of nuclear capabilities indirectly encourages even the hardline government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek more stability in the immediate neighborhood.