Why Kerry is prioritizing Syria over Israeli-Palestinian peace

Article Summary
Calming Israeli-Palestinian tensions is seen as limited mission as US Secretary of State John Kerry embarks on a new round of international diplomacy on Syria.

Washington — US Secretary of State John Kerry returned Oct. 25 from a five-day trip to Europe and the Middle East focused on advancing a diplomatic process for Syria that is seen as an increasingly urgent priority for some of the United States' closest allies in Europe and the region. While Kerry also met with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders on the trip and proposed measures to try to restore calm, diplomats and current and former officials saw little chance of the United States embarking on a new Israel-Palestine peace push because chances for progress are seen to be so limited and because the urgency of ending the 4½-year-old Syrian war, countering the threat posed by the Islamic State and stemming the Syrian refugee influx have become top national security priorities, especially for Europe.

“Syria, for the US, for Europe … is the next priority,” Ghaith al-Omari, an expert on Palestinian issues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Oct. 26. “Syria has become such a central point [especially] for the Europeans, I don’t see any oxygen for dealing with anything else.”

“On the Israel-Palestinian front, I don’t see any potential for any progress between [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu on the one hand and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas on the other,” Omari said. “There is no sense if you start anything that these two leaders will play ball.”

On Syria, “we feel a sense of urgency,” Kerry told reporters after a meeting with the Russian, Saudi and Turkish foreign ministers in Vienna Oct. 23. He said there will likely be a bigger follow-up meeting as early as Oct. 30 in Paris, which will include more parties.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proposed that Egypt and Iran, among others, be included in follow-up talks.

“Our position first of all is to get the Syrians to sit down at the negotiating table and, second, to establish a reliable and representative support group in which many more countries would take part than have done so today,” Lavrov told reporters after the Vienna meeting Oct. 23. “We have singled out Iran and Egypt as they can have an impact on the situation. Their absence does not promote this process.”

Iranian officials did not yet respond to queries whether they expected to attend the Paris meeting. Lavrov spoke with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about the Syria consultations on Oct. 24 and Oct. 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Oman’s foreign minister also held a rare meeting with Sryia’s Bashar al-Assad in Damascus Oct. 26 on how to advance a political process for ending the conflict.

A likely consideration would be if Saudi Arabia accepts being in multilateral talks on Syria that would include Iran, or if there are alternative ideas for working around the impasse — for instance, holding talks with some of the parties in different rooms.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, speaking in Cairo on Oct. 25, said there had been some progress in narrowing positions between the parties on their visions for a Syria process.

“I believe that there has been some progress, and positions have moved closer on finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, but I cannot say that we have reached an agreement,” Jubeir said at a press conference with the Egyptian foreign minister in Cairo Oct. 25. “We still need more consultations … to reach this point.”

While there seems to be growing momentum for a Syria political track, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has largely been relegated to the back burner.

Kerry, speaking in Jordan Oct. 24, announced that Israel had accepted Jordanian King Abdullah’s proposal to install cameras on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount as one measure to try to reduce tensions. Netanyahu, in a statement that evening, reiterated that Israel was not seeking to change the status quo at the site, under which Muslims could pray there but non-Muslims could visit.

Whether such measures will be sufficient to reduce the violence remains to be seen.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former aide to former State Department Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk, said the US administration does not see opportunities for a major Israel-Palestine peace push, but would need to take steps even for the more limited goal of trying to prevent a new major outbreak of violence.

There is “not a grand plan right now for a big move to a new [Israel-Palestine peace] process,” Goldenberg, now with the Center for New American Security, told Al-Monitor Oct. 26.

There is a sense “on all sides … right now, there is no opening for serious [Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations, but American policy should be to try to take effective steps to preserve [a two-state] solution for later on,” he said.

Even that more limited policy goal would likely require “a series of steps to deter and prevent the worst outcomes and another major cycle of violence, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the types of settlement activity that would make it impossible later on to pursue a two-state solution.”

Regarding some reports alleging that Kerry may have discouraged a meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas, Goldenberg said he wasn’t aware if that was the case, but noted the two men don’t like or trust each other, and nothing good was likely to come out of such a meeting. “They have only met a few times, and they don’t like each other,” he said. “From past experience … the US has been hesitant about putting them together.”

“I doubt there is such a thing,” Omari said, referring to a proposed Netanyahu-Abbas meeting. While “Netanyahu always talks [about how] he is willing to meet Abbas ‘anytime, anywhere,’ [Abbas] is not too keen on a meeting [that would be] used by Netanyahu to say things are fine, when they are not. It would be politically costly, if there are no deliverables. Lose, lose.”

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Found in: us-middle east policy, syrian crisis, sergey lavrov, mohammad javad zarif, john kerry, israeli-palestinian negotiations, israeli-palestinian conflict, iranian mediation of syrian crisis

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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