x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Kerry will hear from frustrated American allies

Trying to calm anxious and irritated allies, John Kerry has his work cut out for him this week as he visits the Middle East and North Africa.

Middle Eastern diplomacy is thorny and intricate, but even by those standards, John Kerry faces a difficult few days. First in Cairo, then in Riyadh, and during an expected stop in Jerusalem tonight, the US secretary of state must adjust and explain US positions that have frustrated long-time allies. He also plans talks in the UAE, Jordan, Algeria and Morocco.

If there is a theme to be detected in America’s efforts to adapt to changing regional realities, it is that of a search for stability. Abrupt change in Egypt, tumult and chaos in Syria and Israel’s determination to change the West Bank’s demography are all real challenges for Washington.

In Egypt, the army’s dismissal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime was congenial to US interests, but on the other hand America is committed to electoral democracy. Now Mr Kerry must finesse that commitment as he patches up relations, so as to restore the relative tranquillity of Cairo-Washington relations in Hosni Mubarak’s time.

With the Saudis the challenge is even greater. The government in Riyadh remains angry that the UN has failed to act in Syria, where Iran continues to prop up Bashar Al Assad. There is even greater Saudi disappointment that Barack Obama is seen to have meekly erased his own “red line” about the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons. Riyadh is also perplexed by the US president’s favourable response to Hassan Rouhani’s smile diplomacy.

As the fate of a “Geneva 2” meeting on Syria remains unresolved, it seems possible that the US may even be prepared to tolerate Mr Al Assad’s continued control of the Syrian government, if that is the price of stability. That this result would betray Syria’s people would not, it appears, be much of a factor in US calculations.

But the problems of Egypt and Syria are simple compared with Palestinian-Israeli relations. Mr Kerry’s determined quest for new talks has indeed led to some, but it is hard to imagine this dialogue leading to anything at all. Reports that top Palestinian negotiators have resigned have been denied, but clearly the talks are not going well.

And just as Mr Kerry arrived in the region, Israel delivered a calculated slap to him, by announcing new steps towards more homes on Palestinian land. By launching new Palestinian-Israeli talks, Mr Kerry raised expectations. There, as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the tide of frustration with America is high and rising. These are tough times to be secretary of state.