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.
Turkey’s role remains pivotal. Since 2001, the religious Justice and Development Party has won three successive elections. Commercial reform and control of corruption has provided the foundation for enormous economic growth, and expanding influence in Central Asia and Europe as well as the Mideast.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become increasingly autocratic, rigidly cracking down on mass domestic protests. However, the army has not intervened to remove this regime. The Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, Erdogan’s ally, may encourage needed flexibility in Ankara. Privately, American diplomats should encourage Turkey to develop close ties to Israel as well as the United States.
Finally, the Obama administration has combined aggressive pursuit of terrorists with efforts to reduce the American military presence in the Middle East. This combination is promising for long-term stability and Washington influence.
Previous important progress in the Middle East has occurred despite past disagreements between Israel and the United States. President Jimmy Carter’s enormous determination and discipline achieved the historic 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. Though occasionally frayed, the agreement has held.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 remains the most serious and potentially destructive flashpoint in the region. Egypt’s nationalist regime had seized control of the canal — the only direct route between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean — and Britain, France and Israel devised a secretive, old-style colonial military effort to recapture it. But President Dwight Eisenhower decisively used economic leverage and astute diplomacy to end their effort. As usual, Ike’s instincts were on target, and American-Israeli relations eventually gained in consequence.
The newly resumed talks face enormous hurdles. So far, Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, has boycotted the negotiation process.
Yet the enduring lesson of Job is that effort and persistence will be rewarded.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc.