, Salem, MA


May 17, 2014

Column: Israel-Palestinian conflict must be viewed in regional terms

A prominent and powerful man is embarrassed when private comments made behind closed doors are leaked to the media, causing a storm of criticism. There are calls for his removal by people who find his remarks utterly unacceptable and contemptible.

The reference just above is to Secretary of State John Kerry, who has brought down intense criticism upon himself because he had the temerity to use the word “apartheid” to describe the danger facing Israelis and Palestinians without a peace agreement. Israel supporters denounce his transgression in almost Biblical terms, never mind that some Israeli politicians have employed exactly the same word in discussing the endless conflict.

Kerry was forced to express regret for using the dreaded word, but took the opportunity to remind us all of the high stakes involved in the Mideast. In fact, he is courageously tackling head-on the tangled conflict. His initiative is rightly compared to determined efforts of predecessors James Baker and Henry Kissinger.

Both worked in the aftermath of regional wars, respectively the 1991 First Gulf War and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Neither achieved comprehensive peace, but each eased tensions. Kerry is similar to them in approach: comfortable with details of diplomacy, disciplined and focused, aware breakthroughs are usually a result of private negotiation.

While serving as catalyst in negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians is fundamental to success, the wider regional context is essential for leverage. The Obama administration has a range of tools.

First, Israel is more dependent than ever on American good will as well as aid. Our alliance is based on powerful cultural and historical roots. Iran’s ominous nuclear development encourages Israel-U.S. military cooperation, despite diplomatic differences.

Second, in the past important progress in the Middle East has occurred despite disagreements between Israel and the U.S. 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.

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