John Kerry’s Middle East peace effort tests his optimism

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry brief the media after meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Kerry has made five trips to the region in the last three months.
(Majdi Mohammed / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — In December 2003, badly trailing Howard Dean in polls of the Democratic presidential field, Sen. John F. Kerry mortgaged his house to raise $6.4 million for his struggling campaign. The risky bet paid off the next month when he won the Iowa caucuses.

In 2010, he led a fight for legislation to counter climate change that involved 300 meetings or phone calls before the bill died. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he had never seen anyone work harder on a piece of legislation.

And as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry pursued a long-shot effort to enlist Syrian President Bashar Assad in a diplomatic initiative that he believed could lead to a regionwide peace. Kerry visited Damascus six times, was photographed at a posh restaurant with Assad and his wife, Asma, and was ridiculed by conservative critics for calling the strongman a “reformer” before the effort hit a dead end.


Kerry’s career, spanning more than four decades, has been marked by optimism and perseverance — often against long odds, sometimes to the point of what critics considered naivete or obliviousness.

Now, as secretary of State, probably the last office he will hold, he has put the power of optimism to a test in the most unlikely of places: the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians have gone three years without a single direct peace negotiation.

At a time of deep gloom, Kerry has shuttled across the region trying to sell skeptical leaders on his conviction that with a positive attitude and persistence, the longest odds can yield a huge payoff.

“I’m a believer in possibilities,” Kerry said Sunday as he wrapped up his fifth trip to the region in three months — more than his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made in four years. “I’m absolutely confident that we are on the right track.”

After 20 hours of day-and-night talks in six meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Kerry declared that a resumption of talks was “within reach.” But Israeli and Palestinian leaders said no breakthrough had been made.

Kerry said time was running out for leaders to make “tough decisions” about peace — an acknowledgment he will soon know whether his sunny approach was a masterstroke or a high-stakes flop.

Signs are everywhere of the obstacles and the skepticism of the two sides.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a Washington audience recently that the Kerry initiative had “failed so far.”

Senior members of Israel’s ruling coalition have bickered over whether the goal of creating a Palestinian state is even worth pursuing. The Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister resigned June 20 after two weeks in office, complaining of corruption. That further weakened Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is supposed to negotiate the peace.

Some believe the parties who outmaneuvered and outlasted Kerry’s predecessors are biding their time, waiting for this latest initiative to fail.

Chemi Shalev, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, described Kerry as a diplomatic whirlwind who has been “taxing everyone’s patience by talking of ‘avenues’ and ‘possibilities.’ ”

Shalev said he found Kerry a “breath of fresh air, a welcome respite from the naysayers.”

But, he said, many of those with whom the secretary of State meets consider him “in Israeli parlance … a freyer — a sucker, a dupe or stooge.”

Kerry says he’s undeterred by the criticism. He has kept secret the details of his discussions with Israelis and Palestinians. But it is clear that he is trying to accumulate enough concessions from each side to give the other the political cover needed to restart negotiations.

His method is simple: He has parked himself on the leaders’ doorsteps and refused to go away. With high confidence in his salesmanship, he’s talked to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during some periods every day and to Abbas nearly that often, officials say.

He’s made it clear that he is prepared to lay blame on those who won’t cooperate. That’s a serious threat, because the Palestinians need American funding, and Israel is counting on Washington to deal with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program.

Kerry has also kept the two sides off balance with unpredictable comments. He delivered a jolt recently by telling Congress that after two more years without negotiations, creating a separate Palestinian state would become impossible.

“They don’t know what he’s going to say or do,” said a veteran Middle East analyst who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly about Kerry’s approach.

“They’re back on their heels: It’s hard to prepare or set up obstacles when you don’t know what’s coming. I think it’s great.”

Kerry’s longtime friend and former top aide Ivan Schlager says his old boss “believes if you put in the effort, good things will come. That’s the essence of who he is.”

He pointed out that Kerry embraced risk as a young man during the Vietnam War when he volunteered for a high-casualty Navy Swift boat unit.

Other people who know him say Kerry is dreaming big, looking for a capstone to a long career. Some believe he is drawn by visions of doing what the 12 secretaries of State before him failed to do — broker a genuine peace agreement — and possibly winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

Kerry has told friends that if the effort falls through, there will still be benefits. He has shown Arabs and leaders of world powers that Washington is serious about peace, reasserted a strong American role in the region and helped lay the groundwork for future efforts to improve the Palestinian economy and government.

But others, including some current and former U.S. officials, fear failure now could make pursuing peace efforts far harder for the administration in its remaining years.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, praised Kerry’s efforts. But he said trying to coax the parties with optimistic promises about what the other side will deliver carries risk for the United States.

“By infusing your optimism, you might be telling one side that there’s a better possibility than there really is,” he said. “You might be better off being realistic.”

News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.