DAVID IGNATIUS: Kerry’s Mideast mission progresses


WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry’s cardinal rule in trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been that he won’t talk publicly about the details, so it’s difficult to know how he’s doing. But he’s still hard at it, and he seems to be employing some modest variations on the traditional choreography of Middle East shuttle diplomacy.

Kerry has made a restart of the peace process a personal priority: He has played his cards close to the vest during a string of private meetings with key Israeli and Arab officials.

“What we want to do is to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Kerry in the presence of reporters last Thursday. But Netanyahu wants a clear U.S. commitment that any Palestinian state will be demilitarized and won’t become a base for launching attacks on Israel.

Kerry knows all the reasons why this new peace effort could fail.

Kerry has taken some innovative steps to sweeten a negotiating option that has been soured by so many decades of failure.

The first of these steps was to reanimate the Arab Peace Initiative, originally launched in 2002 by Saudi Arabia and repackaged this year by Qatar, which is always looking for a way to show up its big brother in the Gulf.

The revived initiative, ratified by Arab League foreign ministers in April, included several important amendments. The Arabs called for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, as before, but endorsed a ”comparable and mutually agreed minor swap of the land,” in the words of Sheik Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani, Qatar’s peripatetic foreign minister. Second, and perhaps more important, the Arabs said that if the deal were ratified by both sides,”they would consider the conflict ended,” as Kerry put it, and they would have peace treaties and normalized relations with Israel.

The bottom line for Israel is that rather than just a two-state solution, it would get a 22-state solution (the Arab League members) and even a 57-state solution (if you add in the additional Muslim countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation).

Israeli President Shimon Peres made an unusual intervention, specifying that such a two-state solution” is also accepted by us and a broad structure of support is being created for making progress.” The Peres statement appears to be the operative Israeli position.

Kerry’s second sweetener has been a $4 billion economic assistance plan for the West Bank and Gaza.

“He wants to convey to people in the region how peace would improve their daily lives,” explained one Kerry adviser.

Kerry has one unlikely advantage in the frustrating, obstacle-strewn search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He knows what it’s like to fail at something big in life in his unsuccessful 2004 Democratic presidential campaign – and to stay in the arena for one more try at achieving greatness.

DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

David Ignatius